I’m sorry I haven’t been around – it wasn’t planned. Unforturnately I was taken unexpectedly ill, and the illness (and treatment, which has been quite time and energy consuming). I’m doing OK, and now finally have some time for ordinary life, and one of the “ordinary” things I plan to do is to resume my blog farly soon. So in the meantime before that happens I just thought I would led you know briefly why I’d been silent and that I am planning to resume blogging fairly soon.

Morning all! After a long break (longer than I had anticipated) my blog is about to continue. I was tempted to put a quote about Cthulhu slumbering in this post title but I thought it would only appeal to a minority of my readers and baffle the rest.

Homemade Cthulhu, adapted from pattern in Cree...

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Over the last few months a whole heap of life has got in the way of blogging. Some of this has been famiily related/personal, and also my day job has been incredibly busy. So it just hasn’t been  possible to have the time or energy to write, which is annoying but there we are.

Finally I’m coming up for air a bit, and recently I had the opportunity to give a talk at a very interesting conference near London, so my first proper post will be about the talk, reaction to it and some other related issues. I will be writing/posting about it soon.

Hope you are all well and look forward to resuming my blog on a regular basis.

Landscape near Madurai, Tamil Nadu, India seen...

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It’s been a while since I posted, as you will have noticed. “Real life” intervened and I’ve had to focus on matters in the non-cyber world for a while. I’mOK, but just had to put my energies in other directions, and to a degree I hadn’t quite anticipated. Hope to resume normal-ish service before too long.

For some reason, posting these particular words has made the blog sofware suggest images from Tamil Nadu, India. I have no idea why but, hey, they’re quite nice. So I get to illustrate this “out of the blog office” post with this particular image. Enjoy.

Hope you are well and speak soon …


Another long gap between posts. I have been elsewhere – physically, spiritually and otherwise – but I have finally found some blogging time.

This is not the continuation to the On conformity thread of posts I originally planned, but it does fit into the concept to some degree, so I thought I would write about it while things were fresh in my mind. The trigger for this post was attending a concert recently in Norwich by Dave Swarbrick. Swarb, in case you don’t know, is a fantastic fiddle player with a long performing history in the British folk and folk-rock scenes. After several years of acoustic performance, including as a duo with the equally fabulous Martin Carthy, he joined Fairport Convention in 1969 just as they were becoming serious about their project to electrify British traditional music.

Dave Swarbrick

Having stumbled across (and loved) the music of Richard and Linda Thompson in the late seventies, I “reversed” into listening to Fairport, as Richard had been a founder member of that band. The first time I saw Swarbrick play was in 1979 during Fairport’s as it happens inaccurately titled “Farewell, Farewell” tour …

I’ve seen him many times since – at Fairport reunions, in his own (now defunct) band Whippersnapper, and in duos with Carthy and with Fairport bandmate Simon Nicol. He is a fantastic player – both technically but also because of the fantastic emotion and energy of his playing. I love hearing him, and at the recent gig he was playing as well as ever.

In more recent years, he has faced (and overcome) a number of health problems, at one stage in 1999 waking up to read his own obituary in The Daily Telegraph! Seeing him now, nearly 32 years after I first saw him, led me to reflect on where my life was at at particular times when I happened to see him perform. For all the challenges I have faced, music has been a constant source of solace, joy and affirmation.

This chart shows graphically the personnel of ...

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This recent concert was the first time I have seen him entirely solo. I’ve seen him with Fairport many times, with his own band Whippersnapper, in duos with Carthy and Simon Nicol and so on. So I did reflect on the diverse life routes (i.e. his and mine) between first seeing him with Fairport in London in 1979 and seeing him in March 2011 in the Maddermarket Theatre, Norwich.

As well as loving the music of performers one might loosely defined as folk/roots musicians (we could have a long discussion about what that means) I admired many of them as people. By comparison with the often pre-packaged world of pop, it seems to me to take a lot of determination and self-possession to carve out a career focussing on music that is not generally seen as fashionable and make a go of it. In my younger days I was very drawn to these musicians who seemed, to me, to have a strong sense of confidence and of who they were – two things I lacked, struggling with my own identity. So in a way I saw them as role models, but lacked (at the time) the confidence to follow their example.

Swarb has had an eventful and occasionally wild life (hence the erroneous 1999 obituary). The focus of much of my adolescent and adult life has been internal struggle, which used to stop me taking, or at least making the most of, life opportunities. But when I went to see Swarb play last week it was the first time as Natasha, and as he played so wonderfully I could reflect with pleasure that I had finally said “yes” to life, and I am now living it the way I want to. And I am grateful for how music sustained me in those critical times and perhaps, in some profound way, saved me from giving up as I struggled with my identity.

Traditional music no longer always travels down the traditional route. In the era before electronic communication became mainstream – records, radio, television – it was handed down and modified by communities and families. That happens much less now and our relationship to it is more complicated. I’m currently reading Rob Young’s amazing book Electric Eden which explores our evolving relationship to that music (I highly recommend it). As well as being a fantastic player, Swarb has a scholarly interest in the music, which he touched on at the gig in more detail than I’ve heard him do so before, dropping interesting tidbits as he talked. For example he loves baroque music, and mentioned that the word baroque means “rough pearl”, and that the music was originally thus labelled, he suggested, as an insult. Today, of course, it’s become a term of esteem.

That language mutates is not news, of course. But I would argue that while it usually does so “naturally”, sometimes it is in the interest of those in power to impose changes in language and ideas. So listening to Swarb’s between tunes comments I was struck by how meaning can change, and how language can be liberating but also constraining.

Those who control the language of power can use it to define and limit others. Like most trans people, I have transitioned later in life. There is a complex combination of reasons for that – in the UK even though more people are seeking medical help with transition that average age at which they do so, significantly, is not shifting much.

One of the key reasons for that is “othering” by society – as I grew up I realized that the dominant view about people like me was that we were “unacceptable”, weird, freakish, outside the norm. Realizing that’s how society thinks about how you is a hard way to grow up. But another consequence of that is that authorities – particularly in our case governments and the medical establishment – have tended to want to “deal with us” by forcing us into what are seen as the “normal” categories, to make us conform, sometimes by brutal medical intervention. I will say more about this another time.

The point I wanted to finish on, on this occasion, is that the way trans (and also intersex) people are treated in western countries now is still shaped by the history of earlier conceptions of what it was to be trans, of what the best treatment should be, and of social notions of “acceptability” and the need to move trans and intersex people towards perceived “norms” – physically, medically and socially.

There are all sorts of issues here – the power of words to label and limit,  the confusion of sex with gender, and of sexuality with gender expression; the initial conception of transness as a psychological illness; the conception of transness as wholly “in the head” and intersex as wholly “of the body”. Which puts psychiatrists in a dominant position for the treatment of trans people, and surgeons in the dominant position for the treament of intersex people. And also means that the medical establishment tends to think people are either trans or intersex, but cannot be both. And also that trans people want to move from one far end of the gender spectrum to the other. If people don’t fit that particular category, then as far as some medics and legislators are concerned, they don’t exist!

It seems to me that trans and intersex people need to be able to articulate their identities away from that history, and away from top-down definition by “authorities”. And also to recognize common cause with other groups in society who are oppressed or ignored. In future posts, I’ll write more about what I think needs to change.

On conformity – 1

Hi all. I am gradually rattling the steam-powered engine of this old blog awake again. I have been travelling/otherwise engaged, and although it will be a few days more before my perambulations are over, I thought I would start posting again a little bit in the meantime.

A steam-powered bicycle.

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For various reasons, I have been thinking about identity, about conformity, and about the position in society of those of us who do not match, for whatever reasons, social expectations about gender. I think that we should see those social expectations for what they are – a “rulebook” laid on top of reality, rather than reality itself. I am increasingly convinced that gender variance is natural, but in modern Western societies (of which the UK is, of course, my most direct experience), the notion that there are only two, clearly defined genders has dominated thinking, at least until recently. That is why, although the Gender Recognition Act of 2004 has improved things for trans people, it is primarily top-down legislation which is only helpful for those of us who meet (or can act as if we meet) particular, narrow definitions of what it means to be trans. In my case, I have benefited from the Act but do not agree with its limited definitions, as I discussed in the Guardian last March.

You may wonder, if I feel that UK law is benefiting me rather than hindering me, why I feel the need to take issue with it? The answer is because I realize how limited (and limiting) it is, and because the more trans people I meet, the more open that has made my thinking, the more complex my understanding of my own situation, as well as others I have met, and the more convinced I am that these are issues of freedom, respect, personal liberty and our right to be equal in society with any other individual.

Wow, where do I go with this? There are lots of possible directions and I think this will lead to a few posts. But maybe I can start from a personal perspective. Although I have written in quite a bit of detail about my early life on this blog (particularly my earlier “narrative” posts), I haven’t written too much about my current life, and my family. But maybe in this case this is a good place to start, as it takes us away from detailed considerations about the essence of gender for the moment, but perhaps can raise one or two interesting questions.

I have a wonderful family. I live with my partner and our two children – our daughter is 14 and our son is 11. When I finally stopped fighting myself and accepted that transition was my best option – 3 May 2008 – I realized that I was about to present my family with a very challenging situation. I didn’t know how we collectively and individually would deal with the challenge, but I began to think about what I might be able to do to maximize the chances that we would stay together, stay in our neighbourhood and that I would be able to stay in my job.

I never seriously thought about going “stealth” as we say in the trans community – that is, starting a new life somewhere else and burning the bridges to my past, with the intention of hiding my pre-transition history. I will have more to say about stealth and the issues it raises in another post. But feeling that I at least wanted to try to preserve those elements of my life which I valued so much, I also realized that if I did do so, there would be a lot of colleagues, friends and neighbours in Norwich who would know my history, either because they knew me pre-transition or perhaps because some people would point out my history to them.

Humans extracted from the Pioneer plaque (File...

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That raised a whole bunch of issues, and felt very scary for a while, and again I will write soon about how my current life and my pre-transition life relate to each other, and why I think it is important that they do.

For the moment, though, back to family. My little nuclear family has responded to my transition fantastically. That is not to say that it hasn’t been challenging for them. But we have all communicated with each other, and supported each other, and stuck by each other. I am very lucky.

I think one of the reasons why we have done so well is that we did not seek, as a family, to meet/conform to external expectations about what sort of a family we should be. And also, we’ve made it up as we have gone along. There aren’t many role models out there in terms of families surviving, let alone thriving through transition. Most examples I had come across pre-transition were through documentaries which surfaced from time to time on various cable channels, or occasionally in slightly more serious programmes on BBC Radio 4.

To me, these mostly weren’t much help. They often depicted the family as slightly apologetic, talking in terms of neighbours perhaps “tolerating” them or “allowing” them to fit in. There was a flavour of compromise, of becoming quieter/less visible in order to fit in. Certainly in the run up to, and immediately after transition I worried about how people we knew in Norwich would respond to us, and I was particularly anxious that our children might be singled out or picked on. We had no way of predicting what would happen.

So it was that one morning in September 2009, I walked my son up to his school (about ten minutes walk from our house) and then at the end of the school day took my place with the other parents in the playground, all waiting to collect our kids. The first few times I did that, I felt very visible, not least because the parents surrounding me fitted into lots of different categories:

  • good friends who knew I was transitioning and had supported me
  • acquaintances who knew I was transitioning and when (i.e. they expected me to appear as female at the start of term)
  • acquaintances who knew I was transitioning but not when (so my arrival at the school gate as a woman might have been a bit of a surprise)
  • acquaintances who didn’t know I was transitioning
  • parents who didn’t really know me at all

Nothing much you can do about such a varied bunch of people except be yourself and get on with your daily life. But as a family you also find yourself outside the normal definitions. So some people are keen to label you because they used to be able to put your family into a category, and that’s the way they like to operate, so they want now to put you into another category. Now, I think there are only two categories of family personally, good or bad – and either type can be composed of many different combinations of individuals, for exampe:

  • male parent, female parent, child(ren)
  • single male parent, child(ren)
  • single female parent, child(ren)
  • two female parents, child(ren)
  • two male parents, child(ren), and also
  • family in which one or more member has gone through gender transition

There are probably many other combinations, should we stop to think. These different family compositions will have issues in common, and points of difference – big deal, what the hell. What we decided to do was to resist the pressure to be re-labelled or to conform to any outside definitions; to be a happy and out family, as active socially and within the school context as we ever were; to hopefully demonstrate by example how well things are going for us; and to just go about our daily lives like any other family.

It seems to have worked. We have had no issues/problems with neighbours. The kids are happy and thriving, and doing things growing kids do. Their friends have absorbed the fact of my transition very readily and continue to be warm and friendly to the kids and to us, their parents. And the children have had no problems at school, not been picked on/singled out. Being out there as a proud, united family has done the trick, and we have not had to curry favour, to seek to be “included” in the neighbourhood on some compromised basis. We are just out there.

And what kind of family are we? Well, who needs definitions? We’re just making it up as we go along and having as much fun as we can do along the way. Seems like the best approach to us …

Geek evolution

When I was a child, being raised as a boy, I was kind of an isolated one. Not so isolated before the age of nine, when I had my first clear sense of gender variance, but even before then I would tend to play by myself (I was quite asthmatic which was also limiting) and was obsessed in general with cultural artifacts rather than people. 

Music to begin with, played on our Deccalian record player and then ultimately our Dansette. But very quickly comics (I stole a comic from a cafe when I was about four!) and TV, particularly science fiction. And love of SF TV led at around 12 to love of written science fiction, firstly through Isaac Asimov‘s collection of stories I, Robot, as I was a robot nut. And then in the teen years my musical tastes widened tremendously, so you can find many different types of music and artists on our shelves at home. So I guess I was pretty geeky, and socially awkward in my teens for all the usual reasons plus the transgender reasons on top.

Great Science-Fiction

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Geek for some people is of course a negative term but I think it’s cool to be one (don’t like the term nerd however). And actually I’m an incredibly wide-ranging geek – I’m into all sorts of stuff. Which I think is one of the things that makes me good at my job – working with academic staff in all different disciplines across the University of East Anglia – because I am interested in what they’re up to and have enough geeky skills to talk a bit of their language and understand some of what they’re talking about, whether they’re a historian or teaching on a medical degree.

So I guess I know a lot about certain things (I can recognize whether a comic has been drawn by Steve Ditko, or Ron Embleton, or Barry Windsor-Smith, or Gene Colan, or Frank Bellamy, or Dave Gibbons … I’ll stop now), and a little about a lot. I ain’t no scientist, but I’ve heard of buckyballs.

But the reason I am writing about all this stuff is because a geek’s relationship to their geeky objects of interest is complicated. Initially it was just stuff I loved. And it was good stuff … it’s been kind of weird to treasure all this pop culture stuff as a child and then discover people teaching about it years later at universities. I didn’t see that coming based on the snobbery of some of the teachers when I was at university.

However as I became more troubled about my gender (and as an only child didn’t even have a sibling to consider daring to tell about my transness) some of these things became more a comfort blanket, a defence against the world, and an inert “friend” who would never contradict me.

So has that all changed since I’ve transitioned? Yes, but in slightly subtle ways. This is a kind of experimental bit of thinking here folks, but let me try and explain what I mean. My interest in music, for example, is kind of what I might define as “open-ended geekiness”, because the more you get interested in it the more possibilities open up.

I started as a child by liking Lonnie Donegan (you must hear his version of Frankie and Johnny) and Cliff Richard (well, I was a UK child of the sixties). But following my nose for interesting and different sounds has led me, to give a randomish selection, to Michael Nesmith’s post-Monkees career, Vaughan Williams, Little Feat, Maria Muldaur, the Thompson and Wainwright dynasties, Duke Ellington, David Lindley, Brian Wilson, Ian Dury, Bonnie Raitt, Aretha Franklin, Goldfrapp, Natalie Merchant, Mint Royale (check out their version of the Ask the Family theme tune, I’m not kidding!), Soft Cell, Stevie Wonder, Timbuk 3, June Tabor, Billie Holiday, fantastic film composers like Bernard Herrmann, and the genius of Delia Derbyshire (whose work is known by almost everyone in the UK but whose name is known by almost none). I’ve left you a lot of stuff to look up there but with no links – consider it homework!

So although you could be a jazz obsessive (and there’s nothing wrong with that anyway) in my case music keeps steering me through more and more interesting doors and is endlessly rewarding. Latest joyous discovery? The Decemberists a few days ago.

I could write a similar list about movies, particularly after Basil Edwards, my English teacher at secondary school, introduced us to foreign movies. I have a wide-ranging interest in movies and television. And in due course, when home video technology began to develop in interesting directions, my interest in movies and TV also developed into an interest in these technologies, and in collecting.

I was one of the relatively few people in the UK to buy a laserdisc player in the 1980s (for younger readers, these were early double-sided videodiscs the size of old vinyl Lps). LD became a relatively successful format in the USA when it was re-focused at movie buffs, but was pretty unsuccessful in the UK so you had to be obsessed to find players and discs. And over time, with the development of DVD and other home cinema technologies, I became even more obsessed with getting a really good home set-up, with surround sound and based around the first really decent plasma TV in the UK (which I did, around 2002).

And I’m not dissing it – it’s great to watch movies on. But a couple of years after I’d set up my nice plasma, surround amp and speakers, DVD player, personal video recorder, then along came High Definition and Blu-Ray. And I felt that pressure, to keep up at the leading edge of tech etc etc.

Only I know that this kind of obsessive geekism was, in part, one of the ways in which I was avoiding facing up to my transness – I had a comforting hobby which was a lot of fun, and didn’t involve people much, and kept changing/evolving etc. But it was secondary to the real interest, which was movies – it was about a better way of seeing them to be sure. But on the technology side, I guess I’m focussing on the fact that the technology was “obedient” and “loyal” and did what I wanted – and the outside world wasn’t like that and I always felt would bite me if I was honest about my gender identity.

That may sound a weird connection to make, but I think it’s about putting energy into something else because I was too scared to put in energy to dealing with my true self. And the reason I think there’s a connection is that although my love of music continues, and my love of movies continues, my obsession with keeping on the teetering edge of technology has gone.

Initially I thought it was just because transition keeps you very busy – at this stage it’s like having a second full-time job. But actually, I don’t need the comfort blanket anymore. Because the other thing that has changed is I am much less of a loner than I used to be, and much more of a social person. To put it like that is something of a caricature, ‘cos I did have a lot of fun with friends and family pre-transition, but it’s an interesting difference of emphasis. A lot of preoccupations from before I acknowledged I was a woman have changed, shifted, in some cases disappeared. And a lot of new interests have started to arise because, I think, I am free to be myself (my true self) for the first time in my life.

So the good geeky bits (which I use in life and work) are preserved, and the geeky bits about hiding from the world because I was scared of it have receded. I was much shyer trying to live as a man than I am now I’ve accepted I was always a woman and am able to live as one.

But there’s another, final dimension to this, which is that I wanted to try and be creative before I transitioned – to write, to perform, but I was generally too scared to have a proper go at it. So I went to work for a comics/SF distribution company, rather than try and write. And I acquired a huge music collection rather than play music. Everything always at one, or more, remove. I got dragged into doing a bit of writing in the end, but only ‘cos other people believed in me, not ‘cos I did.

I am not trying to generalize about trans people here. Many are very successful before they transition and I was not totally unsuccessful, but I made a lot of early career/life choices based on having a very low opinion of myself. But lot of trans people do feel very stuck, because they can’t see how to engage fully with life. And they find ways round it, but they are often ways which involving hiding and denying their truest self, and therefore not taking opportunities when they present themselves.

That’s changed for me now – I have a sense of life and creative opportunities opening up, just as I wished they would in my younger years because, finally, I believe in myself. And my geekiness has evolved – it no longer dominates me, it’s just part of my toolkit.

Live in or near Norwich? Or planning to visit Norwich sometime in February? Let me tempt you with a cornucopia of events talking place there to mark LGBT History Month.

Photo of Norwich Market, that I took myself.

Image via Wikipedia

Last year Norwich was the only city outside London to provide at least one event (sometimes more than one) on every day in February, and this year looks like this achievement will be repeated, or even improved on. The programme is still in development and listings are being regularly updated on the Norwich Pride web site. The University of East Anglia, where I work, is offering six talks that month, including one by yours truly – details follow.

Every talk will take place in the Lecture Theatre in the Thomas Paine Study Centre. UEA, as it is known for short, provides information on how to get to our campus. The Thomas Paine Centre is next to our Medical School (M2 on the campus map you can access from that page). Buses stop just outside and there is good disabled access into the Lecture Theatre.

Each talk starts at 7pm. Admission is free and you do not need to book in advance – just turn up. Details of talks and dates are below – hope to see you at some of them. Normal blogging will resume in a week or two…

Wednesday, February 2
Exploring Gender Roles, Stereotypes, and Bullying within Sport and Physical Education

Dr Rock Braithwaite (School of Education and Lifelong Learning)

This interactive presentation examines the gender ideologies and connections to movement based environments. Activity and discussion will focus on the ways in which prevailing gender ideologies constrain achievement in sport and physical education contexts. Potential solutions are explored to establish gender equity.

Wednesday, February 9
Silence and Signs: Sexualities in Hollywood Cinema

Professor Yvonne Tasker (School of Film and Television Studies)

The Hollywood production code which shaped representation within the studio era of Hollywood cinema prohibited explicit references to lesbian and gay sexualities. The resulting silence produced a repressive cinema no doubt, but filmmakers found different ways of signalling nonconformist sexual identities. The collapse of the production code itself rested in part on filmmakers who tested the limits of what could be said and shown, yet today many filmmakers continue to exploit the codes and conventions through which earlier Hollywood films spoke silently of lesbian and gay desires. In this illustrated talk Yvonne Tasker explores the move from silence to speech in American cinema’s representation of lesbian and gay sexualities. The lecture looks at studio era films such as Rebecca (1940), key transitional films such as The Children’s Hour (1961) alongside more recent movies such as Far From Heaven (2002) and Mulholland Drive (2001) which rework the signs – but not the silence – of earlier American cinema.

Monday, February 14
What is Hate Speech?

Dr Alexander Brown (School of Politics, Social and International Studies)

A talk on the philosophical dimension of what hate speech is, why prohibitions are morally justified, and which kinds of groups merit protection. This will include discussion of recent changes to UK law expanding hate speech provisions to include LGBT persons. Alexander has a research interest in hate speech prohibitions, having previously published on the subject and being in the process of writing a book on the topic for Routledge.

Wednesday, February 16
How Gay is your Car?

Dr Catharina Landstrom (School of Environmental Sciences)

This presentation examines the connections between cars, gender and sexuality in late 20th century popular culture.

In spite of efforts by lesbians (and other pioneering women) in the early 20th century the car quickly became a technology dominated by men. Although cars became everyday objects of use by both women and men in the Western world after the Second World War they retained an association with masculinity. Car expertise was constructed as a male domain and to show an interest in cars was a way of performing masculinity. Towards the end of the century the masculinity of cars and car culture had become so firmly established that is was possible to use cars to express sexual identity.

Looking at how cars were linked to gender and sexuality in four TV series produced in the 1990s and 2000s Catharina discusses the ways in which connections with different cars in specific ways become signs of sexual identity. She pays particularly attention to how this possibility was exploited in TV series portraying lesbians and gay men in positive ways.

Monday, February 21
Freaks or Sinners: How 20th century culture saw transgender people
Natasha Curson (Centre for Staff and Educational Development)

Stories of gender variance are as old as human culture – examples can be found in early myth and religion and in historical records as far back as Roman times. The development of medical intervention in the twentieth century, both surgical and hormonal, allowed more people to consider transitioning between gender states that were thought, by many people, to be fixed and unchangeable. News media started to write about transgender people. The medical profession, law-makers and religious leaders became interested as this hidden community started to become more visible. And novelists, film-makers and other artists began to depict trans characters in their work.

What was it like as a transgender child growing up in the later part of the twentieth century, trying to make sense of an internal feeling of gender conflict and looking for information and role models? Almost all the accounts you would encounter were judgemental, depicting trans people as weird, “fakes” or “deceivers”, or living on the fringes of society and barely worthy of decent treatment. Natasha Curson takes you on a personal journey, drawing on her own experience of growing up trans in a time of huge social and political change.

Wednesday, February 23
Queer as Pulp: LGBT Pulp Fiction, Then and Now

Dr BJ Epstein (School of Literature and Creative Writing)

LGBT people weren’t always an acceptable topic in serious literature, but they did feature in pulp fiction to a certain extent. In this talk, B.J. Epstein will look at LGBT pulp fiction from the 1950s and 1960s and will compare it to modern LGBT paperback romances. Who appeared most often in LGBT pulp fiction – Ls, Gs, Bs, or Ts? Who appears most often in modern romances? How are LGBT people portrayed in these books and how has this changed over time?