ANATOMY OF A HOUNDING: FEAR & FACTIONALISM IN SCOTTISH POETRY
Jenny Lindsay is one of Scotland’s best-known spoken word performers as well as an independent programmer and promoter of poetry, live literature and spoken word. Her organisation, Flint & Pitch Productions, won a Creative Edinburgh Award for Leadership in 2017 for her work in the literary sector. Her film-poem, The Imagined We, won a John Byrne Award for Critical Thinking in 2020. Jenny’s latest work, This Script, both a print-collection and stage-show, was described as ‘genius’ by The Scotsman and praised for ‘calls to find solidarity in division’ by The National.
IT IS THE 2ND OF JUNE 2019. I am alone in my Edinburgh flat. It is evening, I have had two glasses of wine, when a friend messages me with a ‘WTF’ and an article from the arts publication, The Skinny, attached. The article is entitled ‘Pride and Prejudice.’ Several columnists have been asked for their views on Pride marches in 2019. I am quickly drawn to what has led to the ‘WTF.’
One of the columnists writes that they avoid Pride due to perceived transphobia from certain lesbian groups, and adds ‘I [have] received much criticism for demanding violent action against these TERFs... While my comments were extreme, I stand by what I said.’ This was in reference to the columnist’s tweets, which are, indeed, ‘extreme’:
Any trans allies at #PrideLondon right now need to step the fuck
up and take out the TERF trash. Get in their faces. Make them
afraid. Debate never works so fuck them up.
This was accompanied by a picture of a trans woman grappling a distressed woman, harrying her forcibly somewhere, a still taken, I believe, from a film. The other tweet stated ‘Beat them up’ alongside a retweet about campaign group Get The L Out, a lesbian advocacy group that argues lesbians are no longer well represented by organisations such as Stonewall and should form separate activist spaces.
Gender-identity activism, ideological schisms about sex and gender, and the current and proposed legislation surrounding transgender rights, particularly how these interact with women’s rights, are cultural phenomena affecting many different areas. These topics have become fraught with confusions and contradictions, and are the most divisive cultural issues I have ever experienced. If you have tried to understand these issues at all, the acronym ‘TERF’ will be familiar. For those to whom the term is new, I will attempt to outline its use.
‘TERF’ stands for ‘trans-exclusionary, radical feminist’ but its usage has expanded over time to include non-feminist women. The latter may fully affirm current trans rights already enshrined in law by the Equality Act 2010. TERFs may also include women who support actions to further mitigate discrimination faced by trans people. Those referred to as TERFs do not, however, accept extreme aspects of queer theory—which often involve denial of biological sex as something materially definable and legislatively important. The ‘exclusionary’ aspect comes from defining ‘sex’ as meaning, simply, the dictionary definition of ‘men’ and ‘women,’ ie, ‘adult human male’ and ‘adult human female.’ These category definitions are implicitly ‘exclusionary’. They are, though, categories on which legal protections are based, as is ‘gender reassignment.’
However, these definitions are often taken to be value judgements about subjective identities: many gender activists see the definition of ‘woman’ as ‘adult human female’ as inherently transphobic: transgender women as not ‘real’ women. This stands even if someone treats trans women as women in all but a few scenarios in which being female is objectively of great importance. Such activists assert that trans women are women. This is supported by many who believe this statement governs how trans women should be treated in general society. Most of us want kindness; affirming someone’s identity through referring to them how they wish, within reason, is something the majority do without question. However, some gender activists mean that trans women are not just socially to be treated as women (howsoever defined) but that they are literally female; thus, lesbians may have penises, and, referring to trans men, some men can give birth, etc.
Even mildly expressing discomfort with this new definition is taken by such activists as rank bigotry. Most opprobrium is directed at women and feminists; it is rare to see men who write about masculinity or being male told they are exclusionary against trans men. The culture war over this issue has its roots in this fundamental clash: a view that asserts no material basis for ‘female’ other than self-declaration versus feminist thinking grounded in female embodiment as the site of female oppression.
Those referred to as a ‘TERF’ have pointed out that the definition of transgender has shifted since the process of obtaining a Gender Recognition Certificate and changing one’s legal sex was implemented in 2004. That process is not, however, necessary for one to transition socially. Nor is it a prerequisite for legal protections for one’s transgender status, as explained above. However, those referred to as TERFs believe it of huge significance that ‘gender identity’ or ‘female-identified’ now replaces ‘sex’ or ‘woman’ in many institutions, even without any change in law, nor a settled agreement about the ideology underpinning such language. They see ‘gender identity’ as ideological language which presupposes a universal experience of gender as an identity: one is either cis- or trans-gender, or sometimes non-binary. But feminists in particular do not view gender as an identity—‘gender’ is used to refer to a set of cultural stereotypes, tropes and expectations to be fought hard against. They reject the prefix ‘cis’ to the word ‘woman’ for this reason, refuting the demand to ‘identify’ with gender at all. (‘Cis’ gender means one ‘identifies with the gender assigned at birth’.)
Such feminists argue that biology is not destiny. Being born male or female does not mean you must follow gendered behaviours or expressions set down by whatever culture you find yourself in. Indeed, where oppressive, these must be fought against. This is the key tenet of feminism. They see an internalisation of gender as something concrete, to be identified with, as therefore regressive. Many also worry about such an ideology beginning to gain cultural dominance, often without question, across the arts, in education, in sports, in prisons, and
other spheres. They judge that this dominance is to the detriment of women’s ability to speak on issues concerning sex and gender that affect them materially, recourse to fairness in a structurally sexist society, and—in the case of sports and prisons—to females’ safety.
Gender dysphoria is usually taken to be the reason for an individual’s wish or need to transition. This condition means real, deep distress experienced by any individual perceiving they should be the opposite sex or, in the case of those who identify as non-binary, deep distress with certain aspects of one’s sex, which may be resolved through making physical changes to one’s body or appearance. While an empathy for individuals with this diagnosable condition remains, many people, predominantly women, struggle with a shift away from
dysphoria being a precursor to both self-declaration and/or legal change of sex. Material, legislative and ideological concerns feature in the discussions around these issues.
While such language (‘cis’, ‘female-identified’, ‘gender identity’, ‘non-binary’, ‘TERF’) may not be new to those within queer communities, the mainstreaming of the discussion has caused severe rifts and confusions. At root, this issue concerns a significant, fundamental difference of viewpoint on the nature, and importance, of defining sex and gender in both law and society. It involves use of the same words to mean very different things.
These rifts and ideological schisms existed well before changes to the law were proposed by both UK and Scottish governments. In both cases, however, these proposals involved badly handled public consultations. This has led to public confusion about the law as it stands and a huge escalation in disharmony. Some politicians have asserted that this is a discussion between only two ‘sides’: full ‘Self-ID’ proposals met without question, including those aimed at young people, versus ‘transphobia’ and a ‘roll-back of trans rights.’ This false dichotomy has been exceptionally damaging. It has also led to deep unease when these issues are raised. As what follows will show, there is good reason for that. The consequences of being seen to be ‘on the wrong side’ on this—though there are actually several views on its various aspects—are chilling. It is no wonder so many people’s response is a swift ‘live and let live!’ and a diving
out of further research or conversation. As will become clear, that attitude is not possible for political, female writers.
That it takes so many words to set out the broad arguments, without even stating one’s own views or starting to unpick how this should operate in law, has always concerned me. Meaningful political discourse requires clarity. I worry when obfuscating language is used, terms go undefined or are circular and/or unclear. I worry when a lack of good faith is the starting point in a ‘democratic’ consultation. Likewise where adherence to ideology, hidden within what may include legitimate legislative requirements, is demanded. It becomes impossible in such a situation to parse the legitimate, sound ideas from the bad law and the ideological strictures. One’s opponents can thus dismiss any critique of either aspect as opposition to the whole. Even engaging with the ‘wrong’ side, including merely listening in good faith to the concerns above, can lead to accusations of bigotry or ‘anti-trans’ sentiment. All this strikes me as a terrible way to conduct important political discourse. But I am most concerned by the tactics of some gender activists in this febrile debate in other countries, tactics now embedded in activism in the UK too. By ‘gender activists’ I do not mean trans people. Many gender activists are not transgender; they describe themselves as ‘allies’.
These tactics have included the vandalising of a women’s library and the defunding of a rape crisis centre in Vancouver that is female-only. This centre also had a dead rat nailed to its door and ‘TERFS GO HOME’ spray-painted on its door-front—a space used by victims of domestic violence. Other intimidation includes death threats, no-platforming, violence, stalking and harassment of feminist writers and academics. It involves conflating ‘TERF’ with ‘fascist’ and advocating the beating of these dehumanised women as ‘valid’ activism. Closer to home, a friend was publicly traduced as biologically essentialist and transphobic after giving a speech about women in the film industry. She had suggested that women’s traditional roles as mothers and primary care-givers may have contributed to their historical lack of representation in film-making. Her points are perfectly valid: they would barely have been questioned four years ago. These are only a few such incidences. I don’t know how these differences can be resolved civilly when such a well-stated viewpoint is responded to with such accusations. I do not know how any woman working in the arts can now talk critically about this structurally sexist sector and our female reality if the latter is deemed intrinsically ‘essentialist’ or ‘transphobic’.
What I have always known is that women who wish to discuss this do not deserve to be threatened, beaten, ‘fucked up’, or punched in the face. The column mentioned at the start of this essay was the first time I had seen such violent rhetoric referred to in a mainstream Scottish arts publication. I was struck by a need to say something. Undoubtedly, the wine contributed...
I took to Twitter and wrote:
Hello! One of your commentators here advocates violence against
lesbian activists at Pride. I find it extraordinary that such views are
given an airing in The Skinny, and for clarity, the ‘I stand by what I
said’ refers to beating up ‘TERFs’, ie women. At Pride. Just FYI.
Many agreed with my tweet (I was not the only person who pointed out the violent rhetoric). I also experienced instantaneous backlash, accusations of ‘tone-policing’, and several angry direct messages. I attempted to navigate this as best I could. After two days it seemed to die down. In the interim, an individual at The Skinny emailed me admitting editorial oversight. The article was quietly amended online, removing ‘TERF’ and the reference to the tweets. However, a representative at the magazine unhelpfully downplayed the chorus of complaints as ‘transphobia’. But the issue was, rather, that incitement to violence had been normalised in a mainstream arts publication. The trans identification of the author was irrelevant to me: their words were incitement to ‘allies’, whom I know to be a wide demographic. So far, so Twitter.
I felt that my stance was not complex enough to be misinterpreted. However, a few days later the columnist who wrote the piece attended a protest outside an event at Edinburgh University and, afterwards, attempted to assault one of the speakers, the feminist Julie Bindel. This was widely reported at the time. I found myself tagged into people’s fury that a) my and other women’s warning about the column’s content had been so downplayed, and b) that there had been no response from the magazine publicly. If a general reader now assumes that
those haranguing me might have laid off a little at my pointing out that publishing and mainstreaming calls for violence can lead to offline violence, they would be mistaken.
On a friend’s Facebook page where this series of incidents was discussed, I was extensively drilled about my views, over the course of several days, primarily by a prominent novelist whom I have known for several years. To many observers this looked and felt exactly how it felt to me: a dogmatic attempt to paint me as motivated by transphobia. My informed responses to her attempt to discuss trans identities, when the topic at hand was incitement to violence being published in a mainstream arts publication, were ignored.
First, my knowledge of gender identity legislation was questioned. It was then asserted that there was no evidence the columnist had attempted to commit any violence at all despite their tweeting ‘Lost my shot at Julie Bindel’. I was rebuked for talking about ‘violence against women’ when ‘it is violence BETWEEN women [...] surely’, missing that there was no ‘between’ about the incident, nor the incitement. The latter illustrates, of course, the sex/gender definition confusions laid out earlier. Any suggestion that this was not two women involved in mutual violence (one with words, one with fists) was deemed a sign (or ‘dog-whistle’) of transphobia.
Subsequently, a demonstration of how I had ever shown support for trans people was demanded. I questioned the relevance of this. I was responded to with an article about the horrendous murders of trans people worldwide, largely sex workers in Latin America. I was told that focusing on The Skinny and the violence was a derailment, when to me that was the entire topic under discussion. I was then accused of having posted transphobic comments on a fellow poet’s page a few months earlier. This was pure invention. I am not connected on any social media platform to the poet mentioned. This error was not sufficient to stop the attempts to prove me a bigot. I was informed that, regardless, I worked with and was friends with people with ‘hateful’ views and therefore was guilty or ‘problematic’ by association. No evidence was produced to back this up.
After that week, a litany of incidents occurred relating to my supposed ‘transphobia’. A woman I have never met screenshot my comments on the aforementioned exchange and posted them to Twitter, alongside my name and photo. She tagged in Creative Scotland to a twenty-tweet thread in which she asserted various things including my unsuitability to work with teenagers and how ‘colonialist’ my mind-set was. This accusation of ‘colonialist’ thinking is commonly used against those labelled a ‘TERF.’ There was, to me, nothing remotely controversial about any of the things I had said. I saw a serious disconnect between her screenshots and the accusations.
This settled down publicly to frequent, steady unfollowings from literary folks on Twitter, but behind the scenes things escalated swiftly. In an email exchange with someone involved in publishing, they informed me that my book launch in May 2019, which took place a fortnight before my response to The Skinny article, had been proposed as a good time to publicly ‘call out [my] transphobia’. This means that I had been pegged as a ‘TERF’ well before my response to The Skinny. Given the wide usage of this acronym the grounds for this could be various. The hiring of my mentor/ editor for my most recent work has been proposed to me as one. Magi Gibson is a feminist poet in her sixties, with decades of experience mentoring women writing from a place of trauma, which This Script required. She has also faced backlash over the last few years due to being labelled a ‘TERF’. I had also released three film-poems from This Script by this point: all relate to female lives or feminism in some way. A determination to locate wrong-think in any of them could have been the grounds for a ‘public call-out’. I have been informed that my film-poem The Imagined We could be construed as ‘TERF-lite’ for using menstruation as a metaphor. I remain uncertain if this is the root of the desire to disrupt my first book launch in nine years.
This contact in publishing refused to tell me who the people were, other than that they were ‘colleagues in the poetry world’ and did not state what form of protest they had been planning. I restricted access to my Facebook profile, removing many poets, mainly ones I had ever seen use the acronym ‘TERF’, to feel slightly safer online. As I was doing a Fringe run with This Script, which is a show about sex, gender and feminism, my director and I decided that it was important for her to attend every performance for added security. The assignation of ‘TERF’, as before, is used to dehumanise women, and it was a label I now had. It was the comments from the contact in publishing that had me most disturbed though: which poets could possibly be behind this?
In July, an up-and-coming poet I had booked for a high-profile event during the August festivals messaged me frantically having heard I was a ‘TERF’ and ‘transphobic’ by friends in the grassroots poetry community. Could I assure them, please, that I was not? I managed to resolve this, but the distress caused to an artist I had booked for a brilliant opportunity was horrible to witness. I do not need acts I book to share my views to give them a platform, nor would I be any kind of quality programmer if I demanded acts I book share mine. I had never,
in eighteen years, had a poet so conflicted about accepting a booking from me. Various friends in literature informed me of attempts to goad them into justifying remaining loyalties: it was both wearying and stressful hearing such things with regularity. Then, more seriously, in November 2019 I was made aware of a literary institution’s staff member under perhaps self-imposed pressure to overlook me for a paid speaking event due to fears of negative reaction from the Scottish literary scene. While part of me wished I had not been informed of this, knowledge I was party to only after I was booked, this incident made me realise what I might be up against. I had previously had a very positive professional relationship with this events programmer.
I continued to be unfollowed and unfriended by writers and poets in the Scottish literary world, despite saying little publicly on any of this. Other than an occasional call (I believe once or twice between June 2019 and March 2020) for an end to the divisive #NoDebate rhetoric from politicians when a debate is, demonstrably, happening, I do not tend to speak about these issues via Twitter. I began to feel I was experiencing an almost Kafkaesque surveillance and denigration, without knowing what the exact charges were so having no means to challenge them. My income as a freelancer—always precarious—dropped substantially on previous years’ despite releasing my best work to date. There is no real way of knowing causality here. There likely never will be.
As anyone who has been through this will know: the only way one can survive a smearing of this kind is with robust defence from those who know and love you. It was in short supply, partly because so many of my friends/peer group are in the literary sector. I was told about private forums for writers on Facebook where I was being denigrated, often without being named. Scotland’s literary sector is small. The target was evident. Knowing that people I thought of as friends were bearing witness to such things but saying nothing in my defence
I believe only my total capitulation would be sufficient to refute the accusations of transphobia made against me. This capitulation would include agreeing that The Skinny columnist was justified, a public self-flagellation on Twitter, an obsequious apology for wrong-doing, and the dissemination of some largely meaningless slogans. My simple ostracization and exclusion from their own events and circles was not sufficient: everybody else had to be made to ostracise me too.
Two freelance collaborators in my film-poetry project were rebuked for working with me, despite all three film-poems going on to be shortlisted for or win awards. I imagine that didn’t help with the anger of those wishing for my ostracization. Well-meaning friends sent me news of discussions they had with other poets, some from grassroots poetry scenes in England. They wanted to assure me they were ‘sticking up for’ me. Though nice to hear of support, obviously this was, simultaneously, alarming.
In late December 2019, a prominent, young, female spoken word poet asked Scottish literary Twitter why people were still working with ‘openly anti-trans poets’. I am one of only two female poets in Scotland to have received this label. This tweet came shortly after the announcement of the programme for Paisley Book Festival, who had booked This Script. The subsequent thread did not reference me directly, though it was apparent to whom it referred.
In February 2020 an event organiser alerted me to a tweet by a young, male poet I have never met, regarding a conference I had been booked for. In this tweet, the poet slated the small publishing house who were one of the partners in the conference for not including sufficient BAME representation in the line-up. This tweet was liked by many people, among them numerous writers whom that publishing house has published in either full collections or anthologies—writers who include the tweeter himself. Underneath he added a comment about how the publishing house had also booked ‘a huge TERF.’ I decided, initially, to do nothing. In conversation with the organiser who contacted me, I was assured this wouldn’t affect the booking, though they knew that ‘TERF’ referred to me. They had been nervous about booking me due to seeing such smears elsewhere, but had felt I was the most obvious person to speak about spoken word in Scotland.
However, something then happened that changed everything. A fellow writer booked for the conference, perhaps in a bid to assure anyone watching that she was not the ‘huge TERF’ referred to in the young poet’s tweet, unfollowed me on Twitter before, or just after, commenting, that ‘I am concerned about this. When I agreed to be on the panel I didn’t know the line-up. Will be speaking to [the publisher] about this.’ To which the young poet replied, ‘Let me know if you want to DM/ chat. One of the other partners has already reached out which is great.’ The author eventually pulled out of the conference.
After so many months of largely rumour-fuelled anxiety and a substantial loss of income, here, finally, was a situation I could respond to. Here, too, public evidence that I was now deemed so ‘problematic’ a figure that even being in the same building as me was ‘concerning’ an author so much they felt they must pull out. (Incidentally, the author and I were not on a panel together: I was running a separate session.) Moreover, these writers felt all this to be so important, and were so confident in their assertions, that they remarked publicly rather than
privately to a publisher they were published by and presumably knew would be open to dialogue. I admit to seeing red...
I attempted directly, politely at first, to have the young poet respond: I had concerns about what he was saying; might he give me an email address to start a dialogue? Unfortunately, after I asked him to name who he was quite obviously referring to and have the courage of his convictions, he blocked me. I was furious, and I was not alone. The poet locked his account. Other social media snark started up against me, all public, all from people followed by many in the small literary sector, including rather obvious smears and sneers about poets
who complain about being ‘silenced’, ‘censored’ or ‘no-platformed’. An England-based trans performer asked (having blocked me from being able to respond) whether ‘Jenny Lindsay has ever walked back her terfery?’ A friend tagged me in to her robust support for me, but obviously I could not see what had been said. Angrily, I used my events account to confront this person. My impression from our exchange was that they believe I may have ‘weaponised’ my own rape to attack trans people by stealth in my show, and that I had only booked and
worked with trans people, including them, over the previous eighteen years to give myself ‘plausible deniability’ for my bigotry. This is similar to the response meted out to several other female writers deemed ‘TERF’ who have written about their experiences of sexual violence and how that informs their feminism.
Meanwhile, ‘appreciation’ tweets lauding the young poet who had caused this most recent stooshie (an increasingly common feature of the small Scottish scene this was all swirling in) were set up. I was rebuked via email for ‘punching down’ at the young man in question by one of his supporters, presumably due to issues of race and sexuality, which to me were quite beside the point. Accusations of ‘punching down’ in this instance show a serious lack of understanding of the situation.
One poet suggested via Twitter that ‘threatening to sue’ a ‘queer poet of colour saying things [I] don’t like’, was the root of the incident. This was in reference to an angry tweet I had made following being blocked by the young poet mentioned previously: along the lines of ‘hoping he has a good lawyer’— admittedly a fairly barbed comment. The root of my anger was his attempt to publicly shame an employer for hiring me, which is not, to me, reducible to him saying ‘things [I] don’t like’. Compounded with all that I had experienced up to this point this felt, if not a legal issue, certainly an interference with my ability to work free of harassment. I attempted to clarify. She responded ‘Are you stalking me?’. Having had a stalker in 2014 who ended up in jail, and this being the first time I had ever ‘spoken’ with this person, I found this ridiculous. The editor of this journal attempted to manage this exchange, but a request for this to be taken with the seriousness it deserved was ignored, even after contributors to the thread were informed I had become seriously unwell due to a sustained
smearing over several months.
Shortly after the young poet’s tweet, and the surrounding fall-out, in February 2020 the Scottish Poetry Library, an important and influential institution, released a public statement calling for an end to bullying, harassment and no-platforming attempts by poets against other poets. Most poets within the Scottish scene knew this statement was, at least in part, in reference to this public attempt to influence my employers and to dissuade other writers from working with me. Artistic leaders across all arts industries are aware of what is
happening to many women—and sometimes men, though that is rarer—who trip the wire on this issue. The consequences can be devastating for livelihood, sanity and reputation. As far as I am aware, the SPL’s remains the only public statement from any arts institution in the UK that takes a firm view that freedom of expression, which does not include hate speech, should be permitted; indeed, that free speech, and exploration of complex ideas, is a requisite for any literary scene to flourish.
The SPL statement was greeted with approval by many and with vehement disapproval by my antagonists. The statement linked to the SPL Code of Conduct, adherence to which affects freelance employment opportunities from the institution. While I have issues with the SPL’s Code of Conduct (concerns I raised privately in November 2019) I was nevertheless relieved to see any kind of sector leadership that acknowledged a growing problem.
My relief was short-lived. I learnt of plans to write an ‘Open Letter to the SPL about Transphobia’ via Twitter, which had now become a war zone of conflicting agendas. I contacted an instigator of this letter via email as they were someone I have worked with extensively for nearly eight years and used to view as a close friend. I begged them not to do this, at least not so publicly. I had journalists calling me: it was obvious to all arts journalists who follow me on social media that this concerned me. The only journalist I gave comment to was Kirsteen Paterson of The National. I was under intense strain and in the process of packing up a flat to move out of the city to Ayrshire, largely in response to this atmosphere in my sector. Well-meaning bystanders, party to none of the background that had led to this Open Letter, may have assumed that a legitimate opposition to serious transphobia was the impetus for this Open Letter’s claims. However, most people involved in the Edinburgh literary scene knew that the Open Letter was written to oppose the SPL statement as it rebuked those involved in my hounding.
The Open Letter gained over 250 signatories, mainly from the Scottish grassroots/literary graduate poetry scene. It also included several people linked currently or in the past to Scottish PEN, a ‘freedom of expression’ organisation, including its then Project Manager. Some academics signed, a few bookshops and some involved in publishing. A number of people who have sat on literary judging panels in Scotland also signed, including a prominent columnist for The Scotsman. All bar one of the detractors mentioned in this essay also signed it. The letter argues that the SPL statement gives free reign to transphobes and has the potential to punish trans writers as ‘bullies’ when what their actions amount to is ‘opposing transphobia.’ They mean, as nearly everybody in this small sector knows, that the actions of the young (not trans) poet and his supporting commentators, as well as all that preceded it, are legitimate activism to ‘oppose [my] transphobia’, a transphobia which, they assert, runs throughout Scottish poetry.
The signatory list to the Open Letter also includes people who have confirmed to me that they signed it not because of trans issues, but to bring down the often controversial Director of the SPL. The letter itself makes a bold attempt to link past staff grievances against the Director and management of the SPL to the claims from the trans authors. I say ‘bold’ because I was one of several poets who were behind private, formal negotiations to address some issues at the Library previously, and none of these trans authors, nor a majority of the poets who signed it, were anywhere to be seen when we were attempting to enact change through proper channels: a painstaking, private process for the good of a necessary institution and all of its staff was the aim, not a tearing down of a hard-fought-for resource for poetry in Scotland.
Taking issue with this Open Letter, as well as a serious misinterpretation of equalities legislation within it, another Open Letter was organised in support of the SPL by ‘Wild Woman Writing Club’, a feminist blog. This was signed by over 500 people both nationally and internationally. Meanwhile, Scottish PEN released a statement saying it was disappointed with the SPL statement, arguing that freedom of expression was ‘complex’. PEN was opposed vociferously for doing so by many who knew the root of this situation, as well as for their then Project Manager having signed the Open Letter despite his protestations he had done so in an ‘individual capacity.’ One signatory included their position on a Scottish PEN committee with their signature. Scottish PEN’s statement also, in a faux-pas reported in the papers, initially misinterpreted the Equality Act 2010, omitting ‘sex’ as a protected characteristic.
I am perturbed by the lack of clear, unequivocal support from freedom of
expression organisations for any female writer being subjected to this treatment.
I am further dismayed by the failure to recognise that, however ‘complex’ an issue gender identity may be, attempts to denigrate a person’s entire body of work and make threats to them and their livelihood are not something a freedom of expression organisation should ever support. Nor should anyone use their position at such an organisation to give weight to such strictures in absence of reasonable evidence of said writer inciting hatred, promoting violence, or anything else on which J. S Mills’s ‘harm principle’ would call for legitimate curbs. The Open Letter on transphobia talks of ‘extensive distress’ at the SPL statement, which is a subjective claim. It also references one ‘critical’ tweet by a Scottish [female] writer and broadcaster about one of the authors’ recent online essays. This tweet apparently led to ‘hundreds’ of ‘abusive comments’ against that author. No evidence of causality is given, no quotation of said critique. Because Twitter is public, all of this is readily available for scrutiny. Any signatory in a position of authority should have researched before signing this document.
The Letter remains online for close reading and interpretation. I would encourage everyone interested to do so. As commented on by the Times Literary Supplement, no specific poet nor poem is referenced in the letter: it refers to transphobia in wider society but with no specific link to the literary sector. I will allow the reader to deduce why. A clear thrust of the Letter is taking issue with people making a link between the SPL statement and supporting the right to express ‘gender-critical views’, but the letter’s authors seem to have
forgotten that Twitter is public. Many people watching this had seen exactly what had been happening in the run-up to the SPL statement. They knew I had been branded as a ‘TERF’. No evidence had been produced to show that my views were so heinous I should not be permitted to speak or have others work with me, and this was the root of it all. This is why the link, perfectly understandably, was made. People may need to remind themselves that Twitter is a public publishing platform. If one is in the arts then arts journalists might
very well be following you. Furthermore, while you may have shunned someone as irrelevant to your circle of interest, not everyone else has. Within hours of the SPL statement, before the opposing Open Letter was even suggested, I was contacted by journalists who had already put two and two together. On Twitter, you can pen whatever smears you like on its toilet wall, but the world is in the cubicle with you.
All of this was reported across the arts pages of several newspapers including the Times (who used a photo of me to accompany it), the Scotsman, the Sunday Times, the National and the Guardian. On International Woman’s Day, my name was mentioned in a speech in the Scottish Parliament by MSP Joan McAlpine, who called for an end to the culture of censoriousness faced by feminist poets in Scotland. I received more unfollowings and followings alike.
I wouldn’t wish to paint an entirely unsupportive picture. Throughout this, I also had much support from those either bemused or horrified by what they were witnessing. ‘Jenny Lindsay did nothing wrong’ was tweeted by a male observer and supporter from the Glasgow music scene. This led to a cavalcade of support for me across social media from several people in broadcasting, hip hop, music, academia, theatre and journalism, showing their support in different ways: robust promotion of my forthcoming appearance in late February at Paisley Book Festival, buying my book, sharing my work. Note: this support was not for any particular view I held, but for my right to continue working as writer, poet and performer.
The exception was in my own sector of Scottish spoken word and literature. Any support from it was mainly private. The one fellow independent promoter/ performer who spoke out in my defence was swiftly unfollowed by many in the scene. Despite all of the above, I received emails from some signatories attempting to deny that the letter, or their signing of it, referenced me at all. In these emails, two nevertheless informed me that I was transphobic and, from one, that aims to no-platform me would be legitimate. Trying to salvage support through correspondence with former friends and colleagues was misguided and I very much regret the attempt. Contrariwise, a few people in the arts have contacted me to explain why they did not sign it despite being asked to. All state, variously, that they knew the letter ultimately referred to me, and while they support ‘trans rights’ they refused to sign in knowledge of the hurt it may cause me. It is a fair mess of a situation to have such disparate viewpoints in one’s inbox. It is also unclear to me how this has anything to do with ‘trans rights’.
A demand that I ‘apologise’ for ‘confusion’ over my views, and ‘educate’ myself is common from those who have spoken to me from that signatory list. But my history in this scene refutes my being a bigot of any kind, and I would hope that the above refutes a lack of education on this issue. Knowledge is not the demand here: capitulation is, on pain of a marching to the proverbial gallows. My publisher informed me they had received ‘complaints’ about me during all this. This is not normal behaviour in a healthy literary culture.
I was booked for the conference that fuelled the young poet’s ire to speak about my work over nearly two decades as a programmer in spoken word and live literature. I have booked and worked alongside several prominent trans writers and performers. It is a strange kind of transphobe who would do such things. But I believe the definition of what constitutes ‘transphobia’ has changed. I believe that the definition of ‘opposing transphobia’ may have
changed too. What I experienced did not feel like a proportionate response to anything I have either said or done. Rather, it felt like social ostracization coupled with cultural authoritarianism. A casting out. An attempt at shaming. An opportunity for revenge from some. Where people have attempted to say what I have done or said to deserve this, the examples given are either slight, vague, referred to as ‘dog-whistles’ or micro-aggressions. Routinely, they are assumptions about my views that appear to have been conjured out of
misinformation or misinterpretation. The latter often feels wilful. Regardless, if I have indeed committed ‘micro’ transgressions, I would expect (and accept) a micro response. This was not. My ‘TERF-lite’ film-poem, which may have been used as evidence of my bigotry, won a John Byrne Award for Critical Thinking in March 2020. In the same week I received an unexpected call from the police saying that my physical safety might be under threat. In a troubling conversation, they informed me that they had been made aware of threats against myself and also against the Scottish Poetry Library. They advised me to consider not attending events unaccompanied. I had not been advised this since my stalker in 2014. I left Edinburgh with a cancelled leaving do, a shiny award, a fairly battered mind, and few goodbyes from anyone within a city’s literature scene that I had dedicated myself to for the majority of my adult life.
A prominent literary journal which had referred to me as [one] of Scotland’s ‘finest cultural innovators’ in 2015 unfollowed me during these events.
There is a very human cost to this level of scrutiny, demand for ideological purity, harassment, bullying and policing. The cumulative effects of the atmosphere I was having to try to create and present my work in, followed by the impact of that signatory list has been very difficult to deal with. The signatories include people I have mentored, booked, promoted, supported with setting up events, given free advice to, and in some cases truly and dearly loved. It is human to feel a real sense of betrayal from both individuals and a sector that has largely turned away from addressing this issue with the gravity and reasoned logic it deserves. The silence of many former friends, too, is difficult to compute. I have defended strangers against less.
With distance I can understand the community-building that can seem to accompany a good pile-on: a virtuous bringing-togetherness, an unconditional support pack; a denunciation, for sure, but one that gives the illusion of being part of something important. I also understand the fear of the author who pulled out of a conference she felt, perhaps, could sully her reputation in a sector increasingly prone to manufactured controversy. The often extremely small communities of private, online literature forums may lead many new or
unpublished writers, in particular, to toe the line. They do not know enough yet to recognise the ‘self-appointed leader’ position of the people who set up such fora. My response to such trends is to defy them—and this has always been my stance in programming too—but I understand the opposite approach, particularly for young, apolitical writers with an aversion to rocking even the smallest of boats. This is, to me, an entirely compromised approach to being a writer. I do, however, understand it.
But my audience, for both my own full-length shows and the event series I have created, has never been comprised mainly of fellow poets and writers. My curations have been anti-elitist, anti-exclusive and unashamedly mainstream in their aims: the point was to showcase excellent unknown writers alongside established names in an artform I love and wished to be better respected, funded and supported. I was successful in this endeavour. This hounding robs me of nothing. The atmosphere I left behind in Edinburgh’s literary culture is a bastardisation of the one I was part of creating. I leave it, not the other way around. This was not what I played a part in building.
It is July 2020. The initial flurry of artistic activity, online cabarets and nightly livestreams is now accompanied by sober discussions about how live literature and performing arts of all kinds will survive the lockdown. The question for independently minded writers and scene-makers is different, however, from that for the institutions. Under what cultural and political conditions are we being asked to write and to perform? So many writers—established and newcomers—have been self-censoring, worrying and fretting about possible controversies.
Banality will result if we allow that to become a core feature of literature. Of equal concern is the data from an Arts Professional survey released in February 2020, which reported that 85% of those working in arts administration positions feel they have to self-censor in both their work and their curation to avoid professional ostracization. Who would choose to take up an arts administration role, or, indeed, roles further up the chain—which are gatekeeping
appointments for funding and opportunities—for any reason than a love of the art form these positions are supposed to serve? Why but to support good work, no matter by whom? The money is often so dreadful in such roles that compromising integrity seems a high price to pay for little return but further compromise. I do not understand the mind-set of any arts administrator—particularly one who is a writer themselves—who would occupy such a role without understanding its importance.
It wasn’t until 2015 that, as an independent programmer, I was first privately scolded for booking someone exceptionally talented but seen as ‘wrong’ on feminism due to social media comments. From that point I experienced this several times, though not just on perceived ‘wrong-think’ on feminism. I never let it affect my curation, strenuously defending the artists I booked, which, ironically, include some of my current detractors. I now face similar censure. This is not activism. It is unhealthy and, worse, unforgiving. Artists are strong-minded and opinionated—it goes with the territory. When there are periodic calls for arts institutions to have all-artist Boards, or peer-reviewed funding rounds, I can think of nothing more dangerous if there isn’t a return to understanding our real function as writers and poets when we sit in judgement on our peers. That function isn’t ideological conformity. It isn’t being friends or doing people we like favours. It’s certainly not acting like online witch hunters, scrolling Twitter feeds for deviation from theories our audiences should be allowed to hear us
explore as certainly or uncertainly as we wish.
I often wonder whether a new split is emerging within the Scottish live poetry scene, rivalling the old ‘page/stage’ debates of old. On one hand, we have those who recognise that performance poetry is an art form that has always explored complex social, political and cultural issues and that those who write it tend to dive deep. On the other hand are those who view such poetry as a place for something else entirely. I remain unsure what, other than a compromised art that conforms to ideological dictats. After recent experiences I question what such people are trying to build in place of a richly various and complicated scene
I feel we risk creating an artform devoid of complex political work, rooted in mere memoir and full of easy agreement. Frequently, those bold enough to say they’ve engaged with my work have to preface it, qualifyingly, with ‘I’m not sure I agree with Jenny about everything but...’ when my work does not require agreement. Agreement, adherence to orthodoxy, are the opposite of my aim: my aim is dialogue, a conversation with a live audience. Preferably with some friendly Malbec in the bar afterwards. Anyone who has engaged with This Script rather than boycotting it would know this.
Social media has taken a wrecking ball to both individual and institutional self-confidence, with cultural edicts making our scene at even the formerly very open-access grassroots level appear exclusive. To be clear, before I trip another wire, I do not mean the many excellent grassroots initiatives to improve representation: I came up in a scene predominantly male, straight, and white. I had to fight ingrained sexism and classism to create platforms more accessible to female performers and those outwith the Russell Group university system. Because of this that scene was one full of real diversity in politics. The current performance poetry scene has regressed in terms of class. I think about the self taught, fiery, funny and ultimately political twenty-year-old I was, knocking out poems at raucous music open mics in Glasgow in 2001. Nobody was there to hear poetry at all. No ‘safe space’ was even imaginable. She would find the current Edinburgh literary scene even more closed off to her than I found it back then.
I think, too, of what my work would have looked like if social media had existed when I was starting out. The scene I developed in was dominated by those over thirty-five, the opposite from now, and the art—and atmosphere—was better for it. As one of very few young performance poets I was emboldened by those older than me in the scene: I viewed them as people to look up to and learn from, not as rivals. I write this, therefore, not just for myself, but in memory of where I started. For any young female poet out there witnessing these events, the lesson is not to avoid what happened to me by compromising your writing, second-guessing a hounding, nor to avoid writing about sex, gender and feminism in whatever way you want to. It is to write with integrity, to stand your ground, to hold your own, and to leave any clique or small forum that makes you feel you are being compromised. Such cliques and fora are not your audience. Your audience is the public.
I know two things simultaneously. Firstly, there is a small, highly vocal, number of poets and writers who feel I have transgressed sufficiently to warrant the label of ‘transphobic’, alongside others who, for various reasons, agree with this label without much scrutiny. Secondly, there appears to be a larger group who are deeply uncomfortable with how this label is applied—both against me and many others. Such is the power of that label, however, that many feel stymied to challenge it when it is applied, no matter how unfairly, to women in the arts. This majority may be worried about speaking due to occupation, uneasiness or
lack of confidence in discussing the issues, professional edicts and personal relationships. Consequently, they must tacitly agree with this label when in certain company, while privately fretting over the injustice of what happens to women branded ‘TERF’. Possibly they also worry about their own ideological purity and whether they would be hounded themselves should they speak up. Such inner conflicts sound mentally exhausting. I refuse to befuddle myself with such doublethink. I refute the accusations of my detractors.
Let me finish with the one thing in this account that I fully direct at my literary accusers: we might not be ‘the unacknowledged legislators’ of the world, as Shelley asserted, but let’s ensure that the Twitter mob is not either. What happened to me could easily happen to any of you if we allow lies to become truth and women to be policed by standards we would never demand of men. We cannot permit our literary culture to become a reflection of, rather than a powerful antidote to, an increasingly corrupted political discourse on this and
so many issues. We cannot have a healthy literary culture if we allow this to continue, and without our institutions supporting values of free, democratic, creative expression. Robustly. Publicly. The alternative is cultural vandalism.