The other week, my wife kicked me out of the house. She wanted to chat with her Mum for the evening. So rather than get under her feet, I went to a do organised by the Israeli Embassy and then decided to take myself out to dinner with a book. What greater pleasure is there than eating alone in a great Italian restaurant with a nice glass of Chianti? Absolute heaven. And my friend James runs one of the best. Il Portico is the oldest family-run Italian in town. The rabbit and venison are to die for — James shoots it himself. Now, I’m no restaurant critic so I won’t go on about how great the food is, but Time Out called it the “legendary Il Portico”… Bear with me, this isn’t about food.
So I truck up to Il Portico with my book and, very irritatingly, it is full. Then I try James’s sister restaurant Pino next door. Also full. James spots me and apologises. It’s booked out for a fundraiser for Ukraine, he explains. As I turn and begin to walk out, slightly disconsolate, my friend Suzanne Moore — old mates from The Guardian days — gets up to say hi. “Stay,” she insists. Well, there is only one seat left. I don’t know anyone. But I sit down as invited. “Hello,” says the woman opposite. “I’m Jo”.
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We chatted about politics and class. What a strange night. Later, after too many Chiantis, I pay silly money to have a rescued parrot in Sumatra named after my wife in the auction. I don’t care. It’s all for Ukraine. We raised £18,500 that evening.
A few days later, James had his restaurant windows smashed in. Then he starts to get a succession of one-star online reviews, complaining that the restaurant is not welcoming to trans people. “A supporter of transphobia and the food is dry to boot,” says one. Then, when these are taken down by Google, a load more reviews appear saying the food is rubbish and the place is dirty. Google won’t take these down because, who knows, they might be genuine reviews. Trust me, the food is delicious and the place is spotless. But the people who want to bring down James’s restaurant have worked out how to play the game. All this because J.K. Rowling sat at one of his tables and ate his pasta.
I haven’t written about the trans issue before for two reasons. First, because I know two people who have transitioned and, as a pastor, my first responsibility is to love them. In both cases, I believe that transitioning was the right thing for them to do and that they are more authentic human beings, more reconciled with who they are, for having done so. Both are, I believe, much happier now. And I certainly wouldn’t want to say anything that might hurt them.
And second, because I am a cis white middle-class middle-aged man, and I have always thought this is a subject on which I ought to mind my privilege and simply shut up. But when your friend gets his windows smashed in, you can’t just sit on the sidelines and say nothing. Suddenly, the sidelines feel like cowardice. In retrospect, silence was my privileged position.
My own view, for what it is worth, is that under late capitalism we have come to accord the very idea of choice more power that it does or indeed should have. In the world of virtual reality, you can be whatever or whomever you choose. But in the real world, choosing to be something doesn’t make it so. The idea that the world is fundamentally malleable by our choices is to imagine a world in which human beings are at the centre and in control of everything, a world in which everything can be bent to our will.
Religious people can’t possibly agree with this. I believe in limits, in the givenness of some things. And, it seems to me, biological sex is one of them. I find the use of medical technology to transgress these limits to be Faustian in its hubris. Others will say all this better than me. The only reason I mention it is because it has become an issue about standing up to be counted. James’s smashed windows made it about that. This is not a column about sexual politics — it is about bullying, pure and simple.
Because some transactivists now behave as though anything they can do for the cause is justified, however cruel: get people sacked, ruin their businesses, be vile to others online. The public sphere is becoming so unpleasant, so full of vitriol and accusation, that many of us just put on our tin hats and retreat from the conversation. To be honest, I have been quite content that my privilege has, until now, encouraged me to think that the best thing for me to do is to sit this one out and say nothing. I have been hiding behind this terribly convenient self-denying ordinance, leaving the likes of J.K. Rowling and Suzanne Moore to take all the heat, my courage being a few pathetic “likes” on Twitter.
This is where I stand. Of course, I will use your preferred pronouns. It is a basic matter of politeness to call people how they would like to be called. And I can see that some people live with an enormous tension between their given sex and the way they have come to think of themselves. My default response is to affirm these decisions, precisely because I haven’t had to face such emotionally complex issues and I thought it best to listen more than to speak. But this, of course, can be yet another alibi for keeping quiet while others take bucketloads of online shit.
But I do believe that there is a stubbornness to reality that cannot be overcome simply through an act of choice. And if that makes me a Terf, then so be it.