Fifteen Minutes of Notoriety

Posted on Fri 28 June 2019 in transition

As Warhol suggested, it happens to everyone, and it happened to me. And it was one of the most unpleasant experiences of my life, and it's stayed with me. Aside from the personal impact, it has left me intensely suspicious of all media, not just the tabloids, and also some wariness of advocacy groups.

This all happened after I had started transitioning at work in April 1999. When the students returned after the vacation, one of them (as I learned from the student grapevine) with an eye to a future media career, sold me out to the Peterborough column in the Telegraph. (I can't remember and I may not have ever known if it was a Classics student, and I would be disappointed if it had been.) For those who are not aficionados of the right-wing press, Peterborough is (or at least used to be) a kind of gossip column. Apparently, teaching at Oxford, in whatever capacity, rendered you eligible for (sneering) inclusion.

Cue the descent on Oxford of tabloid hacks. I know of the Sun and Mail, as well as the local rag, the Oxford Mail; there may have been others. I recall getting a warning from the college about what was afoot, but I had to go into work: there was teaching to prepare and job applications to write, and I think I must have had classes that day too, but I can't honestly remember doing any teaching.

What I do remember is getting off the bus in Cornmarket and barely getting into the High Street before I was pursued up the road by a gentleman from the Sun demanding to know if I was the person they were after. Forced to confirm this, I refused (not particularly coherently) to offer any comment. Of course this did not prevent them making up a quote for their piece as well as the inevitable photograph of me walking away (because you have to see what they look like, right?), and some absurd statements about my professional standing, which I cannot believe were sourced. (A kindly acquaintance then at the Institute of Classical Studies later sent me the Sun cutting.)

The Mail meanwhile sought to gain entry to the annex where my office was. For those who know Oxford, it was directly above Queen's Lane Coffee House. Some of my very lovely students reported this to me and offered to do suitably Aristophanic things to them from a window above the locked gate. Regretfully (regrettably?) I dissuaded them. Of course, eventually the hacks did get in and I find myself besieged in my office. Meanwhile the College (who were very decent throughout) had diverted my telephone calls. I have vivid memories of trying to write a research proposal for a job application while having notes from the Mail being shoved under the door. I played Bob Marley loudly in the hope he would go away—thereby only providing some detail for the story, of course.

Of course, I was naive. I should have anticipated something like this. The right-wing press has a fascination with Oxford. And in those days the legal and cultural position was very different: stories of people transitioning regularly made the newspapers, particularly anyone in the education sector. My friend Claudia, wise in the ways of the media, having joined that tribe, advised me to give a favoured outlet an interview and then they would go away. But I was genuinely shocked that anyone would be interested in me. I was on a temporary contract, lowest of the low, and I hadn't even finished my doctorate. To put it into context, full-time temporary lectureships in those days paid less than today's minimum wage, albeit with free lunch and, if you were lucky, a book grant. It was hardly as if some member of the Oxford establishment had transitioned.

The other thing was that I was just starting out with the transition, and while it was going OK so far (up to that point), I was still very unsure of myself in all sorts of ways, and I certainly didn't want to present myself as typical (if anyone ever is) or some kind of specimen, still less a representative. But it was not just the tabs that wanted me to talk. The main advocacy group Press for Change emailed and urged me to do an interview. Again it was that wretched obsession with Oxford. I was in no state to be anyone's poster child, even if I wanted to, which I resolutely didn't. I wrote back politely declining, and saying that while I was in principle politically active, I really didn't feel up to it at that point. Still, they splashed it on their website anyway. My partner, Chloe, contacted PFC to ask them to back off. She was subsequently phoned, at work, by the Bursar of Exeter College, then Oxford's only trans celebrity and a PFC activist, who let her know that I was letting the side down. What is it about senior management?

I have a huge amount of respect for PFC and all the work they have done to advance the legal position of transfolk in the UK. But sensitive and supportive? No.


And after the right-wing press and the tabs, there was more media to follow. The liberal broadsheets (certainly the Independent and perhaps the Guardian too, I forget) pitched in with their not-at-all-prurient offer of a ‘week in the life’ feature. I declined that too: who wants to hear about my life of teaching and admin? And yes I know that's not what they meant.

And the satirists had their pound of flesh too, of course. On Radio 4, it made the News Quiz, of which I am normally a fan, and there was a particularly horrid feature on Loose Ends. Thank you, Ned Sherrin. Solidarity, my arse.

Following on from this, there's a certain amount of street harassment and hate mail delivered to the College. Of course it's worse now with social media, and compared with some of the shit that MPs like the very wonderful Jess Phillips have to put up with, it was nothing. But I was feeling pretty fragile by this point. My favourite was the Christian organisation that kindly sent me, without explanation, a cartoon pamphlet that was warning of the perils of suicide. I'm still not sure whether this was meant as reverse-psychology piece of inducement, or they were suggesting that disavowal of masculinity counts as suicide. It was a fascinating insight into their ideology, either way.

Oh, and there was the small matter that I hadn't actually told my parents at this point. It's not that it would have been a huge surprise, given that I was pretty open about being trans something, but I imagine they had hoped it was a phase I would grow out of, or at least not bother anyone with in public. Still, it's not a great idea for news of your transition to reach your dad's ears while he's reading the Daily Mail while away at a conference. I believe there was a certain amount of local media interest for them too, which I regret.

Everything settled down, of course, and the press moved on to other victims. This has left me with a hatred of the press, and acute scepticism about any of the claims they make about public interest. There was no public interest here, nor is there in the countless other victims of press intrusion who don't get mentioned amid the phone-hacking and other scandals that prompted the Leveson inquiry. I am sufficiently stubborn that I soldiered on regardless, but I would be lying if I said that the feelings of vulnerability and defensiveness that these events triggered in me did not colour the experience of what happened afterwards. They probably still haven't left.


In 2010, Ed Miliband became leader of the Labour Party. I happened to have been at the same college as an undergraduate, where he had been JCR President (elsewhere that would be head of the student union). Ironically, I'd been away at a conference at the same college, and on my return Chloe tells me that she has had the Daily Mail round. Apparently they were trawling anyone who might have had any contact with him to dig up some dirt. ‘I can understand why he might not want to talk to us,’ said the reporter, in the understatement of the century, but assured Chloe that she was from the Scottish Daily Mail, and that they were, like, totally different, and left her card. I didn't take her up on it.