Harry Nicholas is a writer, campaigner and gay trans man living in London. He has contributed to articles in The Guardian, BBC Newsbeat, BBC3's 'Things not to say to a trans person' and Pink News. A Trans Man Walks into a Gay Bar is his first book.
“The Language to Understand Myself,” an interview with Harry Nicholas
This interview was conducted via e-mail by Interview Editor Rich Duhamell. Of the process, they said, “A Trans Man Walks into a Gay Bar seeks to fill the absence of gay trans man narratives in memoirs, and Harry Nicholas does a phenomenal job in constructing snapshots of queerness and its intersections. Accessible and informative, he brings joy as resistance front and center with scenes of Pride and clubs and community. I truly appreciate his voice in the current uproar for queer visibility and acceptance.” In this interview, Harry Nicholas talks about maintaining privacy, showing queerness beyond struggles, and the way a text once published no longer belongs solely to the author.
Superstition Review: You start readers off with an introduction in “I’m Still Standin’ (Yeah, Yeah, Yeah)” of you already living your adult queer life and exploring another axis to your identity. I appreciated this start of known and embraced transness in place of a chronological, from-the-beginning structure. How did you decide that this was the start you wanted to have?
Harry Nicholas: The majority of trans literature so far has been memoir (probably due to the intrigue of cisgender people) and one tired trope I often read is a chronological narrative arc: beginning with childhood, moving to young adulthood, transitioning and then ending at a point of a happier, more authentic life. I wanted to move beyond this. A Trans Man Walks into a Gay Bar begins at the end of my physical transition – I had been on hormones for around 5 years and had already had chest reconstruction surgery. This isn’t a memoir about physical change or transition or what happens during those things – those exist already. This is a book about the nuances and complexities of sexuality which come into question during and after transition. I also wanted to use my breakup as a jumping off point. It’s something the majority of people can understand and relate to and starting at a place of uncertainty, overwhelm, confusion and questioning, allowed me to unpack and address all of this throughout the book. Some readers have fed back that they would have liked a more chronological approach to help them understand my timeline more easily. But life isn’t as neat or simple as that. When we go through situations, we carry the past with us and it informs our thoughts and feelings. So it didn’t make sense to me to make things so tidy.
SR: Even though we don’t get a scene of how your parents reacted to your queerness until about halfway through this memoir, you foreshadow this moment with simple, offhanded comments you sprinkled throughout, joking about your father giving you money for winning a trans certificate to your mother using your chosen name in correcting your grammar. These hints eased the tension that came when readers waited with you in your room while your parents read your letter; they let readers know that things would work out eventually. What was your process of including sparing details of them leading up to that scene?
HN: This wasn’t actually intentional, and I always find it interesting that when written work is published it is no longer owned by the author. Writing is useless without an audience so it’s half the intention of the author, half the response of the reader. I’m pleased it eased the tension for you. My coming out to my parents was messy and difficult and not really something I wanted to unpack in the book, mainly because these things are complex and private, but also because this isn’t a book about coming out. So I decided to give the information and context that I needed to in order to explore feelings of rejection and how this impacted my future relationships, and explore this as a theme which seemingly many queer people relate to.
SR: You’re thorough in your author’s note before the text that this book is meant to share the story of a happy gay trans man, since narratives like yours are lacking in the public eye. You also take the time to explain acronyms and strawman arguments used against us and to emphasize that nuance is needed in all aspects of queerness, a move that I appreciated given that other books leave out such context. Who would you consider your main audience to be for this memoir?
HN: Most people assume that my primary audience is other gay trans men. That’s true to a degree – I wrote this because there weren’t, at the time of writing, any books (or art really) which looked at the complexities of gender and sexuality through the lens of a gay trans man despite there being so many of us! But the other primary audience is cisgender gay men, many of whom are supportive of trans people and do their best to uplift us. But I think a lot of the realities of our thoughts, feelings, experiences, and lives are sometimes lost and misunderstood. I have a lot of cis gay men ask questions in the pub or online and they are often surprised by the responses I give, or tell me that they hadn’t really considered these things before. So I wanted to give an opportunity for supportive cisgender people in the queer community a little more of an insight into trans realities beyond ‘trans women are women, trans men are men, non-binary people are valid’.
SR: You offer a mini library of books throughout the work: before with the ‘of related interest’, after in a sort of bibliography, and mentions woven into history. You write about the patchwork nature of queer history and the importance of preserving and connecting what we can. How do you see your memoir in conversation with the other writers you’ve recommended?
HN: I recommended those authors because the work they produced gave me the language to understand myself, and by extension the language of the book. There is a mix of writing from trans people and from gay men. For example, Travis Alabanza and Juno Roche opened me up to an alternative way of understanding transness – of transness not being about a broken body or needing to be fixed, but about transition as an act of coming home. And the strength and power of moving between and beyond gender. Then other authors like Andrew McMillan helped me to explore masculinity through a queer lens. I love reading and art, and these works have informed my identity and thinking now, so it felt completely natural to include them in the book – to recognise their contribution to my life (and therefore also the book) but to also sign post readers to these authors, too. I hope my writing will sit on the shelves alongside them, but I’ll leave that to readers to decide.
SR: You don’t mention your work outside of writing in A Trans Man Walks into a Gay Bar beyond the expense of living in London and living a “beans and rice lifestyle” after paying for a date or splurging on a cab home. How did you balance making a living with finding time to write this memoir?
HN: I don’t write about my full-time work because it isn’t a ‘tell all memoir’ and although I cover a lot of things – sex, relationships, dating, very intimate inner thoughts - I chose carefully what to include and what I wanted to unpack – and the things that I didn’t. If I included something, it needed to have a purpose; letting the audience know what my job is outside of writing, wouldn’t, I feel, drive a narrative much further or aid in understanding. In this context, I wasn’t on a ‘beans and rice lifestyle’ because I couldn’t afford anything else, but because I am a fierce saver – something you have to learn to do if choosing to live in London. My day job is low-paid, and I need to be careful with spending, but equally my job makes me happy and allows me to do things in my space time – like writing, reading, seeing art and theatre. For me, a job is just as much about what it allows me to do outside of it, as it is about what the job itself entails. That said, balancing writing a book with full time employment is no easy task. It’s long nights, desperation, frustration, and exhaustion. It’s tough. But I know I am lucky – I had the (albeit limited) free time. Not everyone has that. Ideally writing and art shouldn’t be driven by who is privileged enough to have the time to work. I’d like to see the publishing industry work harder to provide people, especially those from marginalised backgrounds, opportunities to write, and this includes financial support.
SR: In your afterword, you talk about how you struggled not to feature too much of the ‘hard stuff’ of transness, especially in these times of increasing violence toward us. Yet I found the use of the onomatopoeia of the Grindr notification and the repeated ‘pun intended’ use buoyant throughout, bobbing nicely between playful anecdotes and more serious examinations of issues facing queer people. How did you negotiate that balance?
HN: I’m pleased you enjoyed the balance. I thought about what I liked and didn’t about the trans writing I consume – I don’t like to read too much of the ‘hard stuff’ – it gets depressing and upsetting. But equally I don’t enjoy things which feel too bouncy, light or feels disingenuously happy either. I suppose I’m a hopeful cynic. I like reading pieces with light and shade – where we can enjoy the ups and reflect on the downs. In other work, I like the recognition of the difficulties myself and others go through, but I also like the optimism. And that’s life, isn’t it? We can hold both at the same time. In terms of negotiating this, I think this came somewhat naturally because of who I am as a person. When I was feeling more upbeat and happy – I wrote cheerfully. When I was feeling angry or upset, I indulged in some of those harder moments. That’s the benefit of not writing something all at once but over an extended period of time. Each time you put fingers to keyboard you feel slightly differently.
SR: I cannot get over the “That’s cool…I know already. I follow you on Twitter” in response to you coming out! It is such a window into how social media allows us to be ourselves digitally before we can physically. I’d also like to challenge the lack of bravery you claimed in writing your parents that letter; putting pen to paper--or a doc in the cloud--is more permanent than a verbal confession. I wonder, then, how do you think it’s going to be with your memoir being available to the public, people knowing your struggles with identity before or without ever meeting you?
HN: Look, the Twitter stuff - that’s the type of thing you just can’t write in fiction because readers would say ‘that never happens!’ But it does! Our contemporary online culture means where we recognise people in gay clubs from the people we follow online. This sometimes means that by the time I meet someone for the first time in a queer bar, I’ve already seen them half-nude in pictures. I’m definitely not complaining, but I do find it interesting how it’s often backwards from how we’re taught it should be.
Thank you for saying it was brave for writing my coming out letter. The permanency was exactly why I put pen to paper – that meant I wouldn’t chicken out or try and backtrack if it was all laid bare. Writing anything is an act of vulnerability, but I think it’s fair to say that this book in particular contains details which anyone would be nervous about sharing with the world. But for me it always comes back to the same thing – what do I appreciate in other people’s work? I took both comfort and inspiration from Brontez Purnell’s writing which is imperfect, messy, horny, sweaty, and surprising – I love that it isn’t playing safe or is a palatable approach to queerness written for a heterosexual or cisgender audience. You’re either down for that or you’re not. Chances are if you bought the book, then you’ll be game. As for family, friends, colleagues, and people who know me reading, well, ultimately this book isn’t for them. If they want to read, then it’s at their own risk.
SR: You cite joy and survival as forms of queer resistance, and that is visible in your work. From your loving description of Manchester Pride with its queer elders and youth, to the delight in cheering Liam on for the almost-half marathon to your place early in your relationship, the domesticity of community and loving acceptance rings true. How did you go about choosing which moments to represent or reflect that joy and survival that you see as key to our lives?
HN: I think I, along with many queer people, attend human rights protests, organise rallies, start petitions and also go for a swim or to dinner. We don’t just exclusively just do one or the other. Just living as an openly queer person is a political act because there are people who oppose to our very existence. Our rights have been hard fought for and are not a given. So for that reason – moments at Manchester Pride, and also cheering on my partner, and living in our home together – all of this inherently speak to survival, joy and resistance. I wanted to include all of these things to give a more rounded, authentic, and truthful depiction of queer life.