Ups and Downs
My Very Gender Critical Edinburgh Fringe Experience
People keep asking me ‘How was your Fringe?’, which is a fair enough question to ask someone who's just debuted at the Edinburgh Comedy Festival. I keep telling people - ‘yeah, ups and downs obviously - but generally I had a nice time. It was educational!’. But that’s just my party-line. My ‘get out of the conversation quickly’ technique. The truth is much more complicated.
Jen’s Words is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
The best place to start is at the beginning (original, I know). Before even getting to Edinburgh, I had put out a sort of ‘teaser’ trailer for my show, Peak Trans. It contained a sort of montage of some of the topics the show would be about (the trans experience in 2022, the pervasiveness of the gender critical movement in the UK, Graham Linehan etc). This, understandably drew some attention from certain parts of the internet - trans and gender critical twitter users respectively, the Mumsnet forums and of course, the ArchDuke, Self-Proclaimed Protector of Women’s Dignity himself, Graham Linehan. This didn’t bother me. It’s what the show is about, so it’s understandable that the concerned parties are going to want to discuss it. I’m glad they did.
One unusual thing I did start to notice though, was a seemingly well orchestrated attempt at harassment across all of the stand up videos of myself across the web. People would send me screengrabs of comments below Comedy Central Facebook videos, calling me some variation of a “fat, unfunny, Matt Lucas lookalike”. It was interesting, because the comparison to Little Britain’s Matt Lucas had been a motif I had noticed a lot over the past year, from Youtube comments to twitter replies and even Instagram DMs. It all felt a bit too specific to be a coincidence. The only conclusion I could come to was that somewhere online, groups of angry people were conspiring to leave similar comments en masse to any video of my stand up, calling me ugly or fat. It was impressive, in a twisted sort of way. But not the most subtle, maybe.
One of the first things I noticed when arriving at my Edinburgh Fringe venue (The Gilded Balloon, Patter Hoose) was a large window display, featuring a headshot of every act performing there. Except, there was something off about my face - as it had clearly at one point had a large sticker over it. I couldn’t see what the sticker had said, because it had been swiftly removed before I’d gotten there, but the waxy torn paper remains were clearly too difficult to remove completely. I disregarded it - probably just bad luck. Another victim of over-keen Extinction Rebellion protestors? Gosh, pick your targets guys.
I went into my first week of performances with enthusiasm. I had worked hard on this show for well over a year, pushing myself to engage with difficult topics and bring some humour out of them. I knew that it was a risky show to ‘debut’ with. It wasn’t a ‘so, what else can i tell you about me?’ newbie overview hour - it was a concise, cheeky, morally ambiguous hour from a stand up comedian who has felt in utter despair over the way trans people have been treated for years. I had an hour of self deprecating, straight-baiting gags back in 2018 & I opted to throw them all away to try and say something meaningful about how I think things are at the moment. Surprise - not good. The show didn’t have a particularly positive message to take away from it, but if it had of done - it would have been a lie. That simply isn’t the sort of show I could have made. Things aren’t positive for trans people right now, and I wanted the show to be honest.
Audiences started off good at first. I felt like they were connecting with the material, and I was having fun with it. But after a while, there was a weird sort of energy in the room that I couldn’t quite put my finger one. The shows weren’t disasters, by any means - they were selling out pretty much every night, but I’ve been doing stand up long enough now to know when something is off. I didn’t know what it was exactly, but it wasn’t enough to get fixated on. Some people weren’t going to like it - that’s absolutely fine. My stuff isn’t for everybody. But at times, it certainly felt like there were people in who had no desire to be there.
One night before my show, I went to use the toilets near my Gilded Balloon room - only to find ‘Women Won’t Wheesht’ stickers plastered to the inside of the door. If you don’t know, ‘Women Won’t Wheesht’ is the battle-cry of the disaffected gender-critical, who believes she is being silenced by the very existence of people like me. I peeled off the stickers and put them in my bag. I’m not sure why I felt compelled to keep them - maybe as some sort of evidence to be used later? Maybe I just wanted some sort of keepsake to remember how shitty I was feeling at that moment.
I made my way into the Gilded Balloon, Patter Hoose bar and sat down with my laptop. For the first two weeks, this became a sort of ritual for me - sitting alone in the bar, working on the running order of the show, analysing how well it had gone the night previous and adapting to refine it. But often, while going through my notes, I’d feel an uncanny sensation that I was being watched. Now, as a trans woman, if there’s one thing I know for sure - it’s when I’m being stared at. It’s a sixth sense we all have, after years and years of being othered and whispered about publicly. But considering that I have been ‘transitioning’ now for over a decade, and despite the claims that I am an ugly, manly Matt Lucas doppelganger, I actually pass pretty well now in day to day life. I very rarely get stared at, or met with puzzled expressions at the checkout. Most of the time, I’m not the center of attention. Which is why, on these occasions, I could sense that familiar sensation explicitly.
Again, it was something I was able to shake off - because I am not a naturally conspiratorial person (except Bohemian Grove, obviously. Look it up). However, it wasn’t long before I started receiving DMs from concerned internet sleuths on Instagram and Twitter that I started to put two and two together…
See, unbeknownst to me - there was another show on at The Gilded Balloon Patter Hoose at pretty much the same time as mine called Viva Your Vulva. My show was at 7pm, and this vulva themed show was on at 7:15pm - so there was a clear overlap in audiences waiting in the bar. Until I was DM’d about it, I actually didn’t know much about the show at all - but as it turns out, it was written and performed by a prominent gender critical woman named Elaine Miller. Apparently, she had done it for the past few years, except this year she had updated the ending with a particularly on the nose tirade against gender identity politics. Now, I haven’t seen the show so I don’t actually know if this is true, but many people have told me that that’s the gist.
One of the things revealed to me in the DMs were screenshots of some of Miller’s fans - chatting on a Facebook comment thread about me and my show. One of the women gloated that she had worn an ‘Adult Human Female’ t-shirt in the Gilded Bar, and made an effort to ‘do a lap’ of me so as to show me that women won’t ‘back down’. Unfortunately for her, I never actually saw her, or her low-rent t-shirt, but I do have cis woman friends who did, and they too think it was pathetic.
Although I wasn’t aware of Elaine Miller’s vulva show before The Fringe, I was aware of Elaine Miller. I had noticed her various appearances on gender critical podcasts, including speaking engagements with the LGB Alliance - among others. I knew that she followed me on Twitter, and I knew full well how she felt about trans women. Which makes it even odder that I was personally flyered by one of her goons outside our shared venue. The woman made an effort to tell me that I should come to the show, and that it was ‘trans and non-binary inclusive’. It’s a weird, overcompensatory thing to announce to a relative stranger in the street, but of course - I wasn’t a stranger. She knew exactly who I was, and she was making an effort to let me know that fact. I took the flyer and I went inside to focus on my show.
Another time, I saw a man flyering inside the Gilded Bar. He came over to my table, and placed it down. I saw that the flyer said it was a poetry show about gender - so I called him back and asked him to tell me a bit more about it. He then proceeded to tell me how the show was a more ‘gender-critical view of gender identity’. I ended up talking to this person for about half an hour, but like most conversations with terfs, after the first minute or so there is a sort of purgatorial, circular nature to their rhetoric. They are primed to not engage with the personal, human, social level of things. Just self-pity and dated theory. I would see this character more than once, lurking outside the venue - attempting to drum up audiences for their gender-critical poetry show.
The DM’s continued to roll in. By this point, I was not only aware of what was going on, but growing increasingly paranoid by it. One such DM had apparently outlined an internal scheme from various vulva-warriors to attend my shows, and sit stoney faced in silence as a sort of ‘protest’. Believe me, I am aware of how insane this sounds. In fact, I’m so aware of it - that I actually didn’t mention it to anyone for over a week. Except, when I eventually did raise it as a concern with my producers, they too revealed that they were aware of the issue.
I think ultimately the reason I was so hesitant to bring it up publicly, is because I know how it sounds. It’s conspiratorial. Up to that point, I hadn’t been getting any of the coveted four star reviews. I hadn’t been taping quotes to my posters, I had been scraping stickers reading “ScotGov you’re being rather SILLY if you think a woman has a WILLY” off of mine (evidence at bottom of article).
Probably the most surreal moment for me happened when during one of my shows, where there is a running motif that Graham Linehan is writing blogs about me, I receive a DM informing me that Graham Linehan has written an actual blog about me. The blog was a link to a three-star review, and a snide comment from Linehan sarcastically implying that I was having great success at The Fringe.
Graham would later follow this up with a second blog, in response to a post a good friend of mine made about the situation with: ‘Jen Ives Bombs, Blames Wimmin’. Which, as I mentioned above is pretty much what I would have expected their conclusion to be. The only issue with this theory though, is that I never actually said anything about it. All I did was try and go ahead with my show, night after night, knowing that there was an extremely vocal, physically present, clearly angry gaggle of grown adults seething at my very presence.
I consciously tried to maintain passivity, and not rise to the provocations - because at the end of the day, it should be clear to anybody with sense that this was a threatened group of adults, attempting to provoke, bully and intimidate a first time full-run performer at an arts festival notorious for taking its toll on performer’s mental health.
If the goal of these wretched people was to crush my spirits and cause a deep sense of paranoia in me, then I have to admit to you that for a short amount of time they achieved that goal. There was one particular night where it felt as if an entire row (that’s one whole quarter of a 40 seater room) had their arms folded and were intentionally refusing to engage with the show. Whether these audience members were gender-critical plants, or just legitimate patrons who weren’t enjoying it - on that night it simply didn’t matter. Psychologically, they had burrowed into my brain and managed to throw me off, and after that show, the feeling of unfairness at the situation was too much for me to take. It was an emotional night.
But it didn’t last long. Eventually, the right people did start coming to the show. I have to keep in mind that for every bad experience I had at this year’s Fringe, I also had 10 that were amazing. The sheer amount of people who said lovely things to me, or brought me gifts, or checked in on me, or bought me a pint, or just let me talk their ear off while we smoked outside the Pleasance Dome - all that stuff mattered to me a lot.
They say that if you’re not pissing someone off, you’re not doing something interesting. I can see the truth in that. But still, that doesn’t mean that what these people did was alright. I had some real low moments at The Fringe, and I think it’s worth me putting them out there just so you can see the unique position a lot of trans women are in at the moment. For all the talk you hear about alt-right imbeciles ‘getting cancelled’ or gender critical gays and lesbians being ‘erased’ it’s worth focusing your attention on the sequence of events I’ve just logged above - because it demonstrates an actual, tangible example of true cancel culture. Not the type where society at large decides you’ve committed an unforgivable public sin, but instead where a small minority of broken people gang together to intimidate an individual in the hope that they’ll ‘cancel’ themselves.
Is that really the sort of thing you want to see at The Fringe? Or in society at all? If these people actually cared about discourse, they would have left my show out of it. Let the art stand on it’s own, and learn to mind their own business for once.
All the staff I dealt with at The Gilded Balloon were amazing, lovely, caring people who really tried their best to micromanage a bizarre situation. But, I do have reservations about the decision to program our two shows not only in the same venue, but also at the same time. I take issue, also, with their decision to platform the Triggernometry Podcast in their main Teviot building. I think had I known that I would be sharing a venue with these two shows, I might have reconsidered them entirely. But maybe I’ll go into more detail on that another time.
And Elaine Miller? I think at a certain point, any person doing a show has a responsibility to their fellow performers. A lot is said about the ‘spirit of the Fringe’, but for my money - the real ‘spirit’ is the support we give to one another during a month that is trying at the best of times.
Miller’s fans made my Fringe difficult, and at no point did she attempt to reach out to me to clear anything up. I can only take that omission as a tacit endorsement of their beliefs and actions. To me, Miller and her show represent the very worst of comedy - one idea, drilled into the ground year after year for a dedicated audience of sycophants who wouldn’t know an interesting premise if it were stuck to a toilet door.
I know this was a long thing to read, and it’s something I’ve been meaning to put out there for a while. During the actual Fringe, I had offers from the mainstream press to tell my side of it, but I turned them all down because firstly, I am disillusioned entirely by their weak attempts to show ‘support’ for trans individuals while still simultaneously supporting some of the most reductive and hateful nonsense I’ve ever read, and secondly - I wanted the time, and wordcount to say it in a way that felt right to me.
If you would like to see my show Peak Trans then you can get a full, video copy of it HERE
And below you’ll find some of the proof. See you next year, Edinburgh.
Jen’s Words is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.