On Section 28’s birthday, let’s say never again

Content note: This post discusses homophobia, transphobia, and mental ill health

Section 28 turns 30 today. A little over a week ago, I turned 33, which makes me part of a generation of queers that grew up under legislation that meant that teachers in our lives–in a place we spent more than a third of our childhoods!–could not even mention the existence of homosexuality.

The law was passed by bigots, responding to pressure from more bigots. They freaked out over books for children explaining that gay people exist and that’s all right. They didn’t like that the LGBT community was campaigning for rights. And so, they banned schools from talking about it. It was a free speech issue, yes, but more than this: it was a calculated attack on the queer community, aiming to stop children from learning about the possibilities that could apply to them.

And the most heartbreaking thing is that Section 28 worked. It fulfilled its aims. It did stop young people who grew up under it from entertaining the notion that they themselves may be somewhere under the rainbow and that that was valid and all right.

I was one of them.

Throughout my school years, it never even occurred to me that I might not be a nice heterosexual girl who would go on to have nice reproductive sex with a man (which was the alpha and omega of the sex and relationships education I received). I felt weird about it, pricking anxiety and a stomach-churning “no that’s not for me”, but I didn’t really know what else I could be. I was a freak, a weirdo, somehow built wrong, and I didn’t have words to articulate what I might be, or a sense that being different was all right. I had crushes on girls that I never knew were crushes on girls, just complicated, tearful, passionate, explosive friendships.

I was robbed of a time for figuring things out at the time in a young person’s development where they are figuring things out.

It took a huge mess to get me where I am today. A lot of mental ill health, a hefty dollop of risky and questionable sex. It took years to work out that yep, I’m mostly lesbian. And in a weird sort of way I was lucky: at least I wasn’t at a level of risk of contracting HIV from a lack of even a token quantity of education about safer sex!

And I’m bitter because it didn’t have to be that way. I could have avoided a lot of that angst had I just learned vocabulary and a little bit of base validation at school.

I sometimes wonder if us millennial queers are so utterly fucked up because we grew up under Section 28, and we were left to fend for ourselves in figuring shit out.

The terrifying thing is that I see it happening again, and it terrifies me that we may see a new Section 28 rolled out to break a generation of transgender children. I see the moral panic with its “think of the children” tone. The shrieking about books for children in schools. The drive from anti-trans bigots to send out anti-transgender propaganda to teachers. The obsessive focus on transgender children’s transitions.

And it’s a very short hop from there to legislation banning “the promotion of transgender in schools”.

We are in a position to stop this, and it’s one of the reasons I fight so hard against it. While there’s breath in my lungs, I cannot allow another generation of children to suffer like so many of my generation did.

Section 28 likely killed some of my generation, and reviving its rotting corpse because you’re grossed out by the notion that maybe doctors sometimes get it wrong when assigning genders to newborn infants, that will likely kill more children. I can’t sit by and watch that.

It’s why we can’t let it happen. It’s why we need to challenge it. It’s why we need to look at what’s happening around trans children in a movement largely led by cisgender heterosexuals and utterly reject what they are saying. And make no mistake: any legislation targeting part of the LGBT community hits us all. Section 28 was bad for trans young people, lesbian young people, bi young people, and all of our rainbow, despite being driven by hatred of gay men. An injury to the trans community is an injury to all of the queer community.

Something like this happened to generations past. And it cannot happen to generations to come.

Further reading: Stop me if you’ve heard this before (Carrie Marshall)- a short history of Section 28 and analysis of the pattern repeating.

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Following the money with the cancer-obesity link

Content note: this post discusses cancer, dieting and fatmisia

The latest research shows that lifestyle factors cause 37% of cancers, with the second-highest cause being “overweight or obesity”. Maybe that’s true, but I’m going to urge a few caveats in interpreting this, as a great question mark is raised by who is funding the research.

Cancer Research UK have received ten million pounds from diet company Slimming World. 

It’s a jawdropping amount of money, and if your eyebrow is raised, rightly so. Funding matters. Now, I’ve no idea of CRUK’s annual turnover, but £10million is generally considered the threshold for a gigantic charity in and of itself, so receiving this amount of money from one income source alone over five years is pretty shocking.

Funding matters. You might have heard of something called a Type A personality: those driven, ambitious individuals who are so go-getting they might give themselves a heart attack. What you might not know is the science behind that is bunk, and a lot of the research was funded by the tobacco industry--who had their own reasons to look for a cause of heart disease that could enter the public consciousness, one that wasn’t the product they’re flogging.

Funding research drives the research agenda. This is why many journals now insist you publish your funders. And it seems like Slimming World have done something rather clever here: removed themselves a step. Technically, Cancer Research UK have funded the research, and are acknowledged as funders in the published paper. It’s just that Slimming World is then, in turn, funding Cancer Research UK. It’s impossible to prove this link, which is a smart move. But that question mark must remain above our interpretation of the research.

I’ve had a read of the published paper, and its methodology is, for the most part, a good, solid systematic review. However, there are concerns about how obesity/overweight is measured and treated.

First of all, weight is looked at entirely through the lens of BMI. This is a huge problem, because BMI can’t measure body fat, and can’t measure where the body fat is, which is important to know. A high BMI can be caused by being tall or short or muscular. It’s still quite popular in research because it’s very easy to measure, but it’s not particularly meaningful as a measure of body fat, and utterly meaningless when it comes to individual health.

The other question mark is far bigger. The research is looking at lifestyle factors: as well as BMI, it looked at smoking, exposure to UV (i.e. tanning and sunbeds), dietary factors such as eating red meat or not enough fibre, alcohol, and so forth. These are changeable lifestyle factors. And then, obesity is lumped in there with it, like including a bunch of grapes in an analysis of apples.

The thing about obesity is, contrary to popular belief, it’s mostly not a lifestyle factor. It’s not just an issue of you eat too much, and if you eat less, you’ll not be fat any more. It’s a lot of things: it can be related to health issues, poverty, medication side effects, genetics, and so on and on.

But who benefits from treating obesity as a lifestyle factor you can easily change, much like smoking? Perhaps, say, somebody selling diets?

As an aside, I also am concerned about other risk factors being treated as “lifestyle factors”, such as occupational exposure and air pollution, both of which can’t really be helped–although that’s more of a problem with the reporting in the media than the research itself.

Which, finally, brings us on to the reporting and press releasing of this story. The media has, obviously, seized upon the obesity link because it is one of their pet stories: those fatties who do it to themselves, why won’t they change? Cancer Research UK’s press release helpfully supplies a toolkit for journalists to trumpet this, including featuring a case study of a woman who was obese, had uterine cancer, learning about how weight and uterine cancer were linked, and then an inspirational weight loss story–which even mentions that she joined a local slimming group! I think I sprained an eyebrow from raising it so much, there.

And meanwhile, Slimming World is falling over itself to encourage people to pay for its diet products and slimming groups.

For a sceptical mindset, it’s really important that we think about funding and its links to research–from what is researched, how it’s reported, all the way through to how it’s reported in the media. It’s healthy to question findings, and with a funding relationship like this, it’s the smart thing to do.

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PE is hell: How to actually get kids enjoying physical activity

Content note: This post discusses PE lessons. If you had a bad time in PE at school, this might dredge some stuff up for you.

I made a thread on Twitter about PE lessons today, and how I did all I could to avoid the weekly sessions of organised hell. It was popular, because my experience was far from being an outlier. I’ve yet to hear from even one person who didn’t despise PE and wasn’t left with lifelong emotional scars.

I was mostly a good kid at school, but my record was not unblemished: I had a series of detentions, and all of them were for PE, because I’d avoid it being forced to do it whenever possible. I’d maybe hide behind a shed instead of doing the cross country. I’d walk out of lessons. Once I participated in a small strike action with the other chubby, malcoordinated kids, where we sat down in the goal in protest at being made to play football when we all fucking sucked at football. The detentions were infinitely better than the PE lesson: usually it would entail tidying the equipment room, which was great fun, because I love arranging things into their correct places.

The nightmare starts in the changing rooms. You are around the time of puberty, as is everyone else, all at different points, and you are made to undress in front of others. A lot of people are forced to shower, naked, in front of others. Some were monitored by the PE teacher: an adult looking at naked kids, which is a gigantic safeguarding issue. This right here is an easy fix: install some cubicles for changing and showering. It’s an important lesson that we must teach children and young people that your body is your own and you should never be made to show it to others. This information protects children against sexual abusers, and yet, suddenly, in the context of a PE lesson, public nudity is enforced. That’s not good. And it’s additional hell for trans children, disabled children, late and early bloomers, any child who might not want to show their naked body to others. So, put up some cubicles.

I was a chubby kid with dyspraxia as well as bad eyesight and epilepsy. I wasn’t particularly built for sport, especially if they’d make me take my glasses off, so I couldn’t see what I was doing. PE was never going to be good for me, and indeed, it was absolutely horrible.

I hated the team sports. It felt like open season for bullying had been declared on me, because I wasn’t exactly a good addition to any team, what with not being particularly capable of kicking, throwing or catching a ball, nor hitting one. At best, I was mostly excluded from the games, with everyone playing around me. At worst, it was vicious mocking, berating and yelling because I was crap and I knew it. It must have been frustrating for my capable teammates, having to put up with me playing wing defence in their otherwise well-oiled netball machine, but it was an utter ordeal for me. And the worst thing was, I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing. Even if I was all right at catching a ball, fuck knows what I’d do afterwards. I once scored a rather spectacular own goal in football because nobody had taken a moment to explain which way I was meant to be going. It’s the only goal I have ever scored, and I still remember the absolute exhilaration of having the ball, dribbling the ball, shooting, scoring! And then my team being pissed at me because, well, I made us lose.

Running was humiliating, too. Genetics meant I was never built for being a particularly good runner anyway, even if I hadn’t fucking hated it. I’d always come dead last, and the long distance was the worst for that, knowing all eyes were on me, as I struggled and puffed my way to the finish line while the teacher bellowed barbed encouragement. And don’t even get me started on the beep test; I am pretty sure the Geneva Convention has some pretty strong things to say about forcing someone to run until the point of exhaustion, with an added layer of social humiliation to top it off.

I was lucky to not have to do swimming in secondary school, although quite a few people on Twitter told me about that particular humiliation. The changing room experience ramped up to 11, with the added joys of many of compulsory swimming’s victims having periods. Again, I was lucky that periods weren’t much of an issue for me: I didn’t start until I was 14, and my periods were so fucking irregular I think I only had about three while I was at school. However, I’ve been told of the horror of having to say, when the register was called, in front of everyone, that you are currently menstruating and therefore shouldn’t be swimming–and then the teacher would log your period so they could catch you out if you used the excuse a little too often! Which, as well as being an experience I cringed by proxy hearing about, is also pretty awful for young people whose periods are just settling down so they will have a weird cycle and might be on more than once every four weeks.

Now, don’t get me wrong. There were a few activities I did like during PE lessons. I loved rounders, because if I was fielding, the team would put me somewhere the ball was unlikely to fly, because everyone was wise to the fact I was rubbish at catching. And batting was even better, because there was no way on god’s earth I’d hit the ball, so could go back to sitting around. The fact I liked rounders because it was a massive doss speaks volumes to how badly PE was taught. But I also rather liked gymnastics and trampolining, and it was a pity we almost never got to do that–I wasn’t every good at those sports either, but they weren’t competitive, and it was fun to try out something new to me.

My experiences were not uncommon, and it is not a fault of any of us PE-hating kids. There’s nothing wrong with us. It’s that the entire system is fucked. A part of PE lessons being fundamentally broken for the vast majority of kids is likely that same right wing nostalgia that bred a Brexit vote. Older generations had a horrid time in PE, and so younger generations should suffer, too. It’s character building, or some other nonsense. I mean, yes, it built character for me in a way, as I learned about making excuses, but that’s not really a particularly positive skill to learn.

Another problem is the objective doesn’t seem to be to get children and young people to be physically active, but rather, to maybe try to breed a sports superstar. Certainly, my experience and that of many others is the PE teachers would focus most on the capable kids, encouraging them, cheering them on, catering to their level. This is a problem, because statistically it’s almost certain that the next Mo Farah isn’t in your PE class, and if he was, it would be good if his talents could be nurtured with better access to free out-of-school and after school training.

Streaming classes by ability would probably help address this a lot, but broader changes to the way things are done would be invaluable. Rather than focusing on the kids who are already good, try to nurture those who aren’t. For example, I was never taught proper techniques for basketball, just yelled at because I couldn’t bounce a ball and run at the same time, by my teacher and my peers. It would have been much better if rather than just chucking a ball and some bibs at a class and instructing us to play basketball, I could have had a “you’re doing OK, but you need to work a bit on how to do this. Let me help you.” I might not have just fucking walked out of a lesson had that been the case.

Cracking down on peer bullying would also help immeasurably. If someone is shouting at the crap unsporty kid for letting down the team, send them off. Teach them good sportsmanship. Teach them to be an actual team player: the problem is with them.

Of course, a lot of those Brexit-voter nostalgia types will cry that I am advocating for PE lessons to be less competitive and let me be clear: yes I am. I want the element of competition completely eliminated from PE. It fosters bullying behaviour, and it’s demoralising, and it is a huge driver in the hatred of PE. Fuck who’s doing best at a sport, let’s recognise and accept that success looks different for everyone and cater to that.

Running 400 metres instead of 1500 is a huge achievement for some kids; celebrate that, rather than forcing them to run almost four times that length. Just being able to catch that ball is a vast achievement for many: celebrate that. And yes, get kids doing activities that suit them best and they like. Give them chances to try out various sports and types of exercise and choose which ones they want to do. Have a wider range of activities on offer, such as martial arts, circus skills or yoga. If there’s a whole-class football game, consider letting some kids referee rather than play: they’ll still run about, but they’re not being made to do something they’re not good at.

Accept when someone says they can’t do PE that week without pressing as to why. They know their body best, their limitations, and it’s kinder not to force someone to announce they’re menstruating. Ask if there’s anything they’d like to do that lesson, an indoor, lower-intensity exercise like yoga, perhaps. If PE isn’t a hellish experience, they’ll probably not be trying to bunk off–young people are only bunking off of PE because it’s an awful experience.

Yes, it’ll probably cost money to offer opportunities to try different activities, but the government is constantly on about throwing money at PE to “combat obesity” and “encourage activity” so why not do something that stands a fucking chance of achieving the latter, at least, rather than failing miserably at both (of course, a PE lesson is hardly going to combat obesity, a rather sketchy goal in itself!)

A lot of this rests on an assumption that admittedly runs counter to personal experience: that PE teachers are not fascist child-hating bullies who delight in dominating children and watching them suffer, but instead actually want to encourage children to take up physical activity. But if the former applies, fucking sack them, because they’re unfit teachers.

PE could be a nurturing environment where children learn useful skills for life, such as teamwork and cooperation, do some exercise each week, and carry that enjoyment of sport and physical activity into adulthood. At the moment, for many of us, it’s been the exact opposite of that. PE doesn’t have to be a hellish ritual humiliation, but a lot has to change.

And once again, to my fellow PE-haters: you’re not alone, and it wasn’t your fault that your PE experience was awful.

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Once more for the people at the back: abortion rights and trans rights are the same struggle

Content note: this post discusses anti-choice sentiment and transphobia

Today, I got a tweet from a TERF expressing a desire to reduce the abortion time limit, using the same concern-trolling language as noted womb-botherers such as Nadine Dorries.

It didn’t surprise me.

Let’s get the most obvious out of the way first: TERFs are about as feminist as Jim Davidson. They’re also very comfortable with forming political alliances with conservative men, and indeed prefer to date conservative men as they have more in common with them politically. So it’s hardly a shock that they’ve been parroting patriarchal talking points.

Then we have the media transmisogynists like to pretend that trans women pose a problem for reproductive rights activism, which is a deliberately disingenuous misrepresentation of the fairly uncontroversial demand that when we talk about reproductive organs and human bodies, we’re gender-neutral about it, because that’s more precise. It simply isn’t true that trans women are a block to reproductive rights. In fact, they’re doing more than any media transphobe ever has.

How do we know this? One of the places to look is Ireland, where there is a huge struggle for access to abortion. I follow this activism keenly, and do what I can to support and boost their work, so I’m aware that there are a lot of trans women deeply involved in this crucial action. I’ve met many Irish trans feminists who participate in reproductive freedom work. And likewise, Irish feminists don’t want these UK TERFs anywhere near their work, having recently produced a widely-signed open letter telling TERFs exactly where to fuck off to.

If you actually care about reproductive rights, you’d know this, and that’s how it becomes abundantly clear that your transmisogynistic bigots are simply using abortion access as a dogwhistle for “women are defined by reproductive organs and only that.”

To me, feminism is always and has always involved liberating women from our biology. A refusal to define us by whether or not we can bear children. I’ve written before about how this biological essentialism promulgated by transmisogynistic bigot feminists is identical to that promulgated by misogynists. I’ve also defined my stance as pro-trans and pro-choice.

But I want to say it once more, loudly, for the people at the back: trans rights and reproductive rights are intimately linked. You cannot have one without the other. It all boils down to bodily autonomy.

Organisations like Planned Parenthood understand this, and provide therapy for trans people as well as reproductive care. On the flipside of this, 20 countries in Europe still require sterilisation for trans people if they want legal gender recognition.

It is no coincidence that the religious right and fascists want to crack down on both reproductive healthcare and trans healthcare: all they want to do is refuse us bodily autonomy.

Our struggles are the same, and scratch a transmisogynist, and it’ll bleed womb-botherer in the end. Don’t let them win, and let’s continue to stand shoulder to shoulder against these attacks.

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