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WHAT IS GENDER IN THE 21ST CENTURY

WRITTEN BY SIGRID NIELSEN

New York Times Debate Series | Edinburgh International Book Festival | Tuesday 13th August 2019


For much of the 20th century, 'gender' was a drab grammar term, trapped in footnotes and tables with M and F at the top - but even then it probably dreamed of something better. 


Gendered parts of speech were arbitrary. In French, cars and rivers are feminine, books and wine are masculine. In the 1960s feminists came along and said, ‘Hey! The roles women and men play in real life don’t make any more sense than these words!’ 


In the last fifty years gender has gone beyond M and F - transgendered and non-binary people have entered the conversation, while queer people now have the right to marry someone of the same biological sex and women are still fighting for equality - and safety. 


Edinburgh International Book Festival's panel discussion, What is 'Gender' in the 21st Century?, on 13th August was billed as a debate – but if there was supposed to be any debate, it never happened. The panellists were all journalists or writers on society. Rather than arguing about what gender is (and whatever else it is these days, it's contentious), they wanted to tell us what people are doing about it – quite a lot. 


Palko Karasz, reporter for the New York Times, starts every working day looking at trending topics on Twitter and Google. Gender, he says, is now 'everywhere, and in most stories I cover.' 


Amelia Abraham has just published Queer Intentions (Picador). She wanted to write a book about queer culture based on a wide variety of interviews and places. A lot of queer theory, she says, is read only by students on university courses – no one else would want to read it. Her dad has given up on names like LGBTQ+ and calls them all 'BLT'. She wanted to write something readable, something based on people's lives. 


Naomi Wolf is the author of The Beauty Myth and eight other books, most recently Outrages (Virago), about gay sexuality and censorship in the 19th century. She said she was hopeful that multiple genders (or none) were becoming more acceptable - her kids did not struggle with 'they' as a nongendered pronoun, and she had seen a study that said 40% of British undergraduates did not choose a gender if they did not have to. 


The breadth of the panel's experience was impressive. But it was not unlike roaming the internet – overwhelming, random and often negative. 


In Hungary, a showing of the film Billy Elliot was condemned as 'a threat to young Hungarians'. In France, young mostly male journalists for prominent publications started the LOL League. They targetted feminist and LGBT colleagues, first on Twitter, then in real life at nightclubs and parties. In Sweden, there are some hopeful signs - the nongendered pronoun 'hen' has been used for many years, and, Amelia Abraham told us, using stereotypes in Swedish schools is illegal. 


The panel was all white and western. They did what their publications do best and gave us facts and quotes, indications of how it might all be going (or not), cautionary stories about the need for vigilance. 


The one moment of controversy came when an audience member asked what they thought of the attempt to base the definition of woman on feelings rather than 'biological facts'. Naomi Wolf asked if someone was actually trying to do such a thing. 'Gender is a construct,' she said. 'Women's genitals were once believed to be men's genitals turned inside out. Why are we so attached to being one thing or another? Why are we so invasive of each other's decisions? We should just STOP it.' The audience burst into applause. 


Whatever it is, gender is out of the box and will be part of questions about liberation for a long, long time.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Sigrid Nielsen is a writer and co-Founder of the Lavender Menace Bookshop, a much-loved and much-missed LGBT+ literary space for the community, which is enjoying a revival this year as part of many LGBT+ bookstall and festival events, in conjunction with Lighthouse Books.

FIND OUT MORE ABOUT LAVENDER MENACE RETURNS
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ALI SMITH AT THE EDINBURGH INTERNATIONAL BOOK FESTIVAL

WRITTEN BY SIGRID NIELSEN

The second story in Ali Smith's early collection, Free Love, is called 'A Story of Folding and Unfolding'. All sorts of ideas, images, thoughts and threads were folded into Smith's reading and talk about her new novel, Spring, at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. And they unfolded like fireworks, with one colour, pattern and shape inside another.


Smith's stories are always about the unexpected and surprising inside the everyday. Her characters can cope with doubt, loss and hopelessness, but the language is always playful and centred in the reality we all share.


It was storming yesterday evening as the reading started and the Book Festival tents' garden was flooded. The covered walkways started to leak on the long queues of people who'd come to hear Smith's talk. 'Who in this room has wet feet?' she asked and hands went up all over the packed tent. 'I have terrible wet feet as well as cold feet – and I'm about to read you a horrible right-wing rant. Hands up anyone who doesn't want to hear it.' No one expected a right-wing rant in a Smith novel, and many probably weren't prepared for it on top of wet socks and dripping jackets - but few hands were raised and Smith read on.


'We need news feed shock. How dare she? How dare he? How dare they? We need bots. We need cliché. We need to say we're offering hope.'


Though Smith thought 20 years ago when she first planned the novels that they would be about nature and the countryside. The seasons themselves turned out to be a strong presence, but 'you don't choose the book, the book chooses you', and the novels came to reflect the times we're living in as well. Smith read passages about her characters' timely dilemmas: one, Richard, is a storyteller himself, a tv producer who has been asked to work with a script which is based on a lie. Another, Brittany, isn't able to afford university and gets a job in a detention centre for immigrants. The characters' inner voices made them real even in the short passages Smith was able to read out in an hour that was over almost before we knew it.


Smith mentioned a talk by the writer John Berger in which he had said that the obligation of a storyteller was to be hospitable, to invite everyone in. Not only her stories but also her Book Festival readings are that kind of party.


Spring by Ali Smith is published by Hamish Hamilton (RRP £16.99) and is available now in bookstores and online.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Sigrid Nielsen is a writer and co-Founder of the Lavender Menace Bookshop, a much-loved and much-missed LGBT+ literary space for the community, which is enjoying a revival this year as part of many LGBT+ bookstall and festival events, in conjunction with Lighthouse Books.

FIND OUT MORE ABOUT LAVENDER MENACE RETURNS

SOMEWHERE AT THE BOOK FESTIVAL: LAVENDER MENACE TAKEOVER

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SOMEWHERE AND LAVENDER MENACE

We will be featuring news, reviews and roundups from some favourite moments of the Edinburgh International Book Festival.


Our guest writer will be Sigrid Nielsen, writer and co-Founder of the Lavender Menace Bookshop, a much-loved and much-missed LGBT+ literary space for the community, which is enjoying a revival this year as part of many LGBT+ bookstall and festival events, in conjunction with Lighthouse Books. 


See https://www.facebook.com/Lavender-Menace-Returns-560421927808697/ for more


THE BOOK FRINGE

The wonderful Mairi Oliver and her team at Lighthouse Books on West Nicolson Street are hosting various LGBTQ+ focused events as part of the Book Fringe:.


August dates to make a note of:

3rd Queer Voices: Poetry

6th History of Polari

7th Mia Violet - You are trans enough

14th Amelia Abraham - Queer Intentions, and also discussing 4 anthologies with strong LGBT representation, namely Pushin's Exile Anthology, Derek Owusu with Safe: Black British Men reclaiming Space, Comma Press' Resist and It's Not about the Burqa. 


Check out: https://www.lighthousebookshop.com/ and https://www.facebook.com/pg/LighthouseBks/events/?ref=page_internal for more!