Grace Lavery: The Author and Academic Confronting Transphobia

The "Please Miss: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Penis" writer has been harassed, trolled and banned from Twitter – but she's still going strong.

“I really think my tour is going to make a difference in the UK. I’m very arrogant,” said the transgender academic and writer Grace Lavery, with an audacious smile. Lavery is an English professor at Berkeley in California, but she is better known for her commentary on trans issues on Twitter, frequently engaging her critics in sparring matches. Until recently she was the most-followed transgender scholar on the social network.

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Being an outspoken trans woman, she's had to weather false accusations of abuse, misogyny and even paedophilia from anonymous accounts.  She is uncharacteristically bashful when describing how she first dealt with being labelled a misogynist in 2018. “At first it did hurt me,” she admits. “I asked ten women that I really admire to design me little knuckle tattoos so that I would always feel that my hands were at the service of the sisterhood.” She holds up her hands, showing off the smattering of hearts, runes and squiggles inked across her knuckles.

When we first spoke, she was at her home in California, rushing out to give a talk at Stanford. Lavery was just weeks away from the UK leg of a promotional tour for her memoir, Please Miss: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Penis. She planned to use it to shift the toxic discourse about trans people in Britain, where she grew up. I told her that I hoped she would succeed, but she sensed my dejected tone. “Everyone’s so pessimistic!” she exclaimed in frustration.

A former Oxford University debater and regular Twitter provocateur, Lavery’s speech is highbrow with a digital inflection, with both esoteric language – “Archimedean” – and internet-isms – “smashing that like button” – popping up in casual conversation. It is a hybrid of her academic background and internet persona, similarly her accent reflects both her British roots and time spent living in the United States.

Photo: PR

It’s no surprise she’s a defender of debate, both online and in traditional media. “I think we have much better arguments than they do,” she asserted. “Trans people should be grabbing whatever cameras are being pointed in our direction and exploiting every single opportunity.”

In February, Lavery lost access to her biggest public platform. In a fight with another Twitter user, who tagged the Home Office and claimed Lavery should not be allowed to enter the UK because she intends to “incite public order offences”, Lavery flippantly responded, “oh I hope the queen dies also”, earning her a lifetime ban.

She bristles at the suggestion that the ban is unrelated to her trans advocacy. “It is sort of unrelated,” she concedes, “except that I very much doubt that tweet would have been mass reported if I hadn’t been who I am.” Still, she is able to joke about her “defeat by the House of Windsor.”

With Grace removed from Twitter, the ire of her critics was turned on her mother, Jane Lavery, who was bombarded with images of Lavery and her husband, Daniel Lavery. Jane told me that she “was shocked that people thought I would be interested in pictures of Grace and Danny having consensual sex, and generally thought the level of argument that was being levelled was inane and fatuous.”

Photo: PR

One image shows Grace’s fist in Danny’s mouth and the other shows a bite mark on his cheek. They were taken from a now-deleted private Instagram account for sexy queer pandemic pictures run by Grace and her friend, author Yelena Moskovich. The Twitter users spamming Jane cited the images as proof that Grace, who they call a man, is abusing Danny, a trans man, who they see as a female victim. 

“I don't think that biting is evidence of sexual abuse in a relationship,” argues Lavery. “I think people bite each other often during sex. I feel like it's fairly normcore. It seems super provincial to even refer to it as a kink.” She laughs out of frustration as she explains this, annoyed that those calling her an abuser appear to understand little about abuse, which both she and Danny have personally experienced.

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Her mother being targeted has led Lavery to prioritise safety more highly, pulling out of a planned debate with the gender critical feminist Julie Bindel over concerns about the audience that might show up. “I'm scared of the people who are sending porn to my mum because I don't think that those people are acting within the usual bounds of political advocacy, and I think those people are likely to cross other lines,” she said.

One of the most high-profile engagements of her tour was an interview with Emma Barnett on the Radio 4 show Woman’s Hour, on 7th April. The BBC has been widely criticised for its reporting on trans people, and its treatment of trans contributors. Lavery did not expect an easy ride. “I don't treat the BBC as a neutral organisation. I treat the BBC as a captured organisation that we're going to need to contest, so that's what I'm fucking doing,” she said.

We caught up the day after her Woman’s Hour interview was taped, in a pub in Edinburgh, the city being one of the final stops of her tour. She was in good spirits. “I liked Emma Barnett,” she says, calling her “a thoughtful and diligent interviewer”, before going on to describe some aspects of the interview she found revealing.

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“I was just really struck by how what she has to say is the same question over and over again,” says Lavery, that question being one asked of many politicians in recent weeks: “Can a woman have a penis?”

“The question is designed to be lurid rather than clarifying,” says Lavery. “We’re supposed to respond to that question by going ‘Oh, you know, nowadays, even women can have penises. What a crazy world we live in.’”

She was also surprised by some of Barnett’s assumptions in the interview, particularly that being gender critical is the mainstream feminist position, an idea Lavery says is “not true in the UK and laughable anywhere else in the world”. In, fact, says Lavery, “The position that [Barnett] thinks is the normal one, which is to say that a class of women is found in nature and is defined by reproductive capacity, pretty much until 2014 when Caitlyn Jenner appeared on the front of Vanity Fair, has been the definite position against which feminism defined itself.”

Her goals for the book tour are lofty, perhaps rooted in her need to be “the transexual who saves the world” as she wryly puts it, but she believes that trans people deserve more than many of them feel comfortable demanding. “The civil rights we’re advocating for – we are actually entitled to them,” she says. “They’re not a gift.” 

With the government backpedalling on its promises to ban transgender conversion therapy and end spousal veto for people trying to obtain a gender recognition certificate, it appears trans people will have to fight harder for their rights than ever before.

But despite both media and government escalating their transphobic rhetoric while Grace has been in the UK, she is leaving optimistic about the future of LGBTQ+ community in Britain. Her talks haven’t been disrupted by gender critical protesters on the rare occasions they have shown up, and the community isn’t nearly as divided as she had feared. She was particularly buoyed by the united front presented by LGBTQ+ organisations in the face of the government continuing to allow conversion therapy for trans children.

“The TERFs and the Tories believed that working together they could peel trans people away from our LGB siblings, and it just was not possible,” she says. Having been worried Britain’s LGBT+ communities would be as divided as they sometimes appear on Twitter, Grace is relieved to discover “it looks a lot better in 3D”.

Please Miss: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Penis is out now on Daunt Books.

@sasha_baker1503

Tagged:

Books, Interviews, transgender, TRANS RIGHTS, transphobia

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