A conversation with prisoner support volunteer and research associate, Felix McNulty
During my first book tours back in 2017/18 I got to work with groups like Action for Trans Health and LGBT Books to Prisoners and, along the way, I met some incredible people like Felix. They are part of the team running Books Beyond Bars UK and in this conversation we discuss what solidarity with queer/trans prisoners can look like, how to keep academia grounded in activism and how to get queer politics back on track.
Felix is a founding member and core volunteer at Books Beyond Bars. Alongside this, they are a research associate, book nerd and cat parent living in Manchester, dreaming of a better world than the one we live in.
Books Beyond Bars UK is a collective of volunteers who send books and other educational materials, free of charge, to incarcerated LGBTQIA+ people across the UK. Access to reading materials in prison is often limited, and within this access to books and resources covering different aspects of LGBTQIA+ experience can be almost non-existent. Books Beyond Bars aims to support people in accessing resources to understand and explore their own identities, while also building a sense of connection with queer and trans communities on the outside.
Books Beyond Bars, website here
Kids of Colour: https://kidsofcolour.com/
Nejma Collective: https://nejmacollective.wordpress.com/
Borderline Books: https://borderlinebooks.org/
Haven Distribution: https://www.havendistribution.org.uk/
Hi, I’m Kes Otter Lieffe and welcome to Margins and Murmurations, the podcast. If you enjoy this podcast please share it with your friends. As I don’t have social media this is the best way for people to find out about me. If you’d like to know more about my work, you can check out otterlieffe.com.
During my first book tours back in 2017/18 I got to work with groups like Action for Trans Health and LGBT Books to Prisoners and along the way, I met some incredible people like Felix. They are part of the team running Books Beyond Bars UK and in this conversation we discuss what solidarity with queer/trans prisoners can look like, how to keep academia grounded in activism and how to get queer politics back on track.
Felix is a founding member and core volunteer at Books Beyond Bars. Alongside this, they are a research associate, book nerd and cat parent living in Manchester, dreaming of a better world than the one we live in. Books Beyond Bars, UK, is a collective of volunteers who send books and other educational materials free of charge to incarcerated LGBTQIA plus people across the UK. Access to reading materials in prison is often limited, and within this, access to books and resources covering different aspects of LGBTQIA plus experience can be almost nonexistent. Books Beyond Bars aims to support people in accessing resources to understand and explore their own identities, while also building a sense of connection with queer and trans communities on the outside.
Yeah, well, let’s start with the classic question of where are you today and what more than humans are around you? Do you have any cute animals, plants, others in your life at the moment?
I love this question. So I’m in Manchester, in the northwest of England in my house today. So in the house I have Naya, my cat, who’s about ten now, I’ve had her for ten years, she lived in ten years. And some house plants who are varying degrees of happy – I’m not great at that. And then around, I feel like Manchester is pretty good for, you see like a decent amount of green, I think, in most of the like, not so much in the centre, but in most of the residential areas, there’s at least a few trees and things. And on our back, the fence at the back of my house, there’s like a really old ivy, like, all the way down, really grown into the fence. And all spring and summer we had like, one or two blackbirds that seem to be there all the time, eating berries and things like that. And they got a bit of nest that they’d built inside maybe around June time, which was very cool.
K: Did you see some little blackbird babies?
F: We got a glimpse of one where we didn’t want to approach because I think it spoiled us. It was not flying because running around on the ground looking a bit panicked. And the parents were nearby, I guess, coming back and forth to feed it. We were like, leave that alone, don’t want to scare anybody. Hopefully that one made it off, but that’s what made it look because we spotted the chick then went searching. That’s how we found this nest completely hidden, but somehow the cat hadn’t got to either. And then outside of that, I guess it’s mainly the kinds of animals that you see more often in cities. So fair amount of squirrels, lots of magpies. A few crows, love crows. And then lots and lots of pigeons
K: And foxes? Manchester has foxes.
F: There are some. I’ve still not seen one. I’ve lived here a long time, but I know other people have seen urban foxes.
F: Gorgeous. Yeah. So Books Beyond Bars, it’s a project that’s obviously really close to my heart and you’re doing just yeah, I’m just so impressed constantly by all the incredible work you’re doing as the team. And I was wondering how that kind of work – I remember some of the process at the beginning of the project – but how did you get involved in that particular kind of work, particularly like solidarity with incarcerated LGBTQIA people? Where was your personal connection with that work?
F: Yeah, I mean, this will probably kind of cross over at some point with us getting to know each other, which will be quite nice. We can kind of put on that as well, but pre-getting to know each other. And then the kind of origin of books beyond bars specifically, I think around my mid 20s probably, I was trying to get more involved in doing community-based work or just get involved with things a bit more. And at the time, the main project that I got involved was Action for Trans Health, which at the time was like trans healthcare focused, as the name kind of suggests. And they did various different things, one of which was running a kind of central solidarity fund that was set up to do originally and then it kind of branched out and within the solidarity fund there was kind of priority access for various different groups, but among them, the people who were incarcerated could get grants without needing to wait for funding round to happen. So it was kind of automatic access. So after there was a point at which I kind of built up correspondence by post with a small number of mainly trans women at the time who were – basically supporting them to access that fund and then kind of continuing mail correspondence as well.
I mean, as an adult and this speaks, I guess to a lot of my own kind of background and privilege and stuff, but I hadn’t had any kind of real direct contact with prisons and the impact of them. So for most of my adult life it had been kind of abstract in a way, it was kind of removed from my life. And so through that, I think inevitably when you’re interacting with people and getting to know people on a human level and then it becomes a lot more concrete, like a lot more concrete. Well it did for me became a lot more concrete and real to me very quickly. And then I think that ended up going back and forth between learning a lot more and engaging a lot more with critical ideas and work that other people were doing around prisons and around abolition specifically. So there was kind of a period of developing a lot in my thinking and understanding around what prisons are and how they function and through doing that kind of community work, I think that’s how you and I got to know each other through some kind of collaborations and kind of book events going on at the time.
F: And then out of that was how I knew you at the point that you were running a fundraiser with a project in the US that sends books to queer and trans people in prison over there, LGBT Books to Prisoners. And then I think out of that fundraiser just kind of started conversations around what exists in the UK, which at the time was Bent Bars primarily, who still exist, and now it’s kind of us and them in terms of projects where the main focus is LGBTQ plus people. And then just kind of figuring out a way to see if we could make it happen. And then we did, which is still kind of incredible.
F: It feels like a long time ago, right? I was like, oh yeah, having these memories of like, yeah, meeting, and I think I was on a book tour. It’s like maybe the first time I’d been on tour. In 2017 or something. Or 2018, I don’t know. One of those.
F: Yeah, really. I can’t place it now either. A long…kind of path, maybe.
K: And where is Books Beyond Bars, UK now? What does a daily routine look like? How many responses or letters and things do you get each week? What’s it looking like?
F: Yeah, so in terms of like, the number of letters that come through week to week, it kind of varies quite a bit, I guess, in terms of how we run it at the moment, because we’re not a charity technically, which is a deliberate decision. So it’s set up as a kind of a limited company, but kind of explicitly making no profits. So all, it kind of runs on donations and fundraising, any fundraising that we can do. And then all of that goes to mainly postage and then also buying books that we need a lot more. Because it’s volunteer at the moment. The core work gets done in kind of one working day in the week. There will be other bits and pieces of emails and things like that, but in terms of doing parcels and letters that tend to try and power through that on the one working day, I’d say, like, definitely over – I mean, it’s hard to say what it would have been like, like anything. I suppose. It’s been hard to say what it would have been like without covid happening in the UK in 2020. About a year after we started. Because then that just there was a huge increase at that point. Obviously. Because people were on lockdown for 23 and a half hours a day. So there wasn’t just as much the need was high anyway. But it was suddenly kind of hugely increased and then it kind of fluctuates. This year we’ve been getting a lot more new letters and new word forms from people. And in terms of averages, I think last year we sent out about if we just over two and a half thousand books, and we’re kind of on track to be somewhere between two and a half this year. So in terms of books, that’s about where it stands and we also do a print newsletter for people inside. The mailing list for that is currently about 350 people. So that’s kind of about the average of what we send maybe what that looks like.
K: Enough to keep you really busy, I guess.
F: Yeah. Enough that we can just about keep up with it. Yeah definitely.
K: So amazing. I’m actually going to change the order of our questions before we move on to talking about your PhD. I’m curious, what can people do to support Books Beyond Bars if people are listening, being like oh my God, this sounds like really important work, which it is. What kind of support is useful? Is support useful? I’m curious.
F: I mean in terms of like people can kind of stay up to date with what we’re doing or find out about what we’re up to on the obvious social media. We’re most active on Instagram and Twitter for those handles and things. And we’ll put those in the show notes. But also just searching for something that should bring us up and that’s kind of like updates on donations. If we’re doing any call outs for specific books or specific topics or anything like that, then people will find out there we’re sharing actions from other groups and sign posting things that you might want to get involved in as well. In terms of supporting, so at the moment we’re trying to build volunteer capacity but a lot that’s very local because most of the core work that we do has to be in person. So it’s not a great deal. We get a lot of emails asking about volunteering from a distance, which is lovely, obviously very appreciated. There’s not a whole lot that people can really get involved in if they don’t live nearby just for us. So if people want to support Books Beyond Bars specifically and they’re kind of at a distance, then the best things are either well for people who are able to setting up like a monthly donation is very helpful. We’ve built quite a lot on that this year, building up like a monthly income base just because it means that we can be confident about covering like a baseline postage costs and also do some planning as well. Hopefully. That’s another thing I think through the pandemic – A because we couldn’t go anywhere, obviously, like very few people could, but also we were kind of just trying to keep up with what was coming in and tried to be sending out as much as possible. So at the moment we’re kind of trying to spend a bit more time thinking about how we want to – are there things that we could be doing or that we could be doing better. But there just hasn’t been that much time or capacity to evaluate and think about ways of working. Are there things that we can change or do slightly differently? Are there ways that we could be being better linked up with other groups? So at the moment we’re kind of trying to do that. So monthly donations help to kind of just keep things ticking over obviously and book drives as well for book donations which we are kind of working at the moment on a guide about how people can do that outside of that I guess well, because we already signpost or try to work collaboratively with and signpost people to groups doing other things. So whether that’s – not necessarily book projects but sometimes book projects but support projects that are focused on other groups, one specific kind of intersections or marginalised kind of aspects of experience or campaigning groups and groups that are doing a lot more campaigns and direct action and organising in that way. I think we would always encourage people as well to look at what’s going on locally if they’re having the feeling of like I need to do something which I relate to a lot. I think going back to the kind of origin story. The point at which I started to get involved in things was this kind of almost kind of panicky feeling of like I need to do something and then working out who’s doing things essentially what other things the jobs that like you have to do and it would be easy to delegate to another person because I’ve not been doing this for ages so I don’t want to kind of barge in and be trying to do more than I can actually do but are there delegatable tasks just asking about those things and getting involved with things like the groups that I feel like there’s more and more of them popping up at the moment as well like corpwatch groups or (?) groups for people who live in kind of bigger cities. Also if there isn’t anything locally then looking to projects where it isn’t as in-person centric as we are so people can sign up to the pen pals with Bent Bars from where they are. I guess those would be places depending on what the feeling is that they’re having about wanting to handle.
K: Yeah. On that, I’m curious how from your perspective how Books Beyond Bars fits and like the work that you’re doing in the network I wonder how that fits in with for example, queer organising, trans organising like other scenes because my sense often with things like prisoner solidarity and support is that it’s just not as sexy as other things that people might be organising. It doesn’t seem as interesting on Instagram. It’s like a lot of hard work that nobody really perceives or recognises and I’m curious like how you perceive that and how other people in other scenes, where does it fit in? Are people really supportive? Are they supportive for five minutes , but it isn’t very sexy on their Instagram? I’m kind of curious.
F: That’s really interesting. I feel like it’s going to go off in a few different directions but the first thing it’s making me think of is going back to the earlier question of what – how did I gravitate towards doing more of this kind of work and part of that I think was during this period of time when I was just looking into and reading and engaging with lots of ideas and politics that I think prior to that my kind of politics had probably been more like a liberal side and not very developed analysis about power. How power works. As I was learning more about that, becoming more and more frustrated by the fact that I was reading these things that were talking about how then kind of mainstream LGBTQ organisations that are the most well resourced and have the most funds. The most power. But the things that they advocate for in terms of legislation and in the UK as well. This kind of really huge emphasis on hate crime reporting like ‘Hate crime. Hate crime. It’s going to save us all.’ and becoming more critical of that and then just becoming really frustrated that the most prominent kind of priorities were so narrow and so far away from changing the things that increasingly I was like these are the things that really need to be urgently changed. So I think in those settings it’s definitely still extremely marginal because I guess politically it’s something that people don’t really want to touch necessarily because I think from a more really large scale charity perspective it’s bad for PR potentially. I think people see it that way as something that makes you vulnerable to being basically it’s damaging to the kind of image of like LGBTQ life that they are wanting to communicate as a way of being like look, we’re so good. Give us rights kind of thing.
K: Right, respectability politics, this kind of class of queers who are like fallen from grace. So the only thing that’s wrong with them is their queerness and if they can just fix that and change a few laws then everything will be fine. And indeed other classes of queers are just not that interesting or something or kind of expose problems with capitalism and the prison industrial complex.
F: Yeah, well the demands are bigger and more transformative and more disruptive. We get requests from people when they’re coming up to release for information about what kind of resources, what is going to be available in the area of where they’re going to be living. And it’s often quite difficult to get something as simple as like a named person at a comparatively much more well resourced organisation that we can put them in touch with. Not even to do anything but to say can they just email you by name? Can they maybe call? But we’re not promising that this person is going to go with you to things. It’s not even that they would be being asked to do anything, particularly just to be a point of contact, but that’s very difficult to find. So on that side of things, I think it depends on the space. In trans spaces I’ve tended to find there’s much more familiarity, at least familiarity with the idea of abolition.
K: That’s interesting.
F: And that will vary from place to place. So across trans focused events in the UK, there is variation between the politics of different events and some I think would be much more unsure, whereas other events will go and the response is really enthusiastic, really lovely. I’m not sure that that would be the case at a mainstream kind of full LGBTQ umbrella Pride, particularly because of the which lots of people have talked about for years now, but the influence of kind of corporate sponsorship and literal police involvement and prison Probation Service involvement, people walking with a banner in a particularly like dystopic Pride parade. So I think that the response then would be much more mixed. I would imagine that because there is so much investment in the idea of hate crime as a route to safety, is kind of the only thing that’s offered. If that, I think for some people, if they have a sense of that being taken away, then I think that their reaction to us would maybe be quite negative. I think they would maybe react to us as though we were saying like, I want these things to happen to you, rather than saying like, no, I want actual things to happen that will actually reduce the danger to people and actually address that harm effectively when it does happen. So yeah within communities, obviously it’s different depending on where you are. I would say that there’s definitely more solidarities that happen across different organising priorities, perhaps. So obviously with other groups that are doing direct support work with people in prison or are organising around abolition and actually I tended to find that those spaces are much more attentive to and paying a lot more attention to all of the intersections as well. It tends to be a much better it’s more likely that there’ll be an assumed investment in – as a minimum – an investment in anti racism and a familiarity with basic language stuff and that can make things more accessible for trans people and they’re not assuming that I found to be the case in those spaces. Which has also been very heartening. I think. At the same time as I felt increasingly over time very alienated and angry. Like, at that parade that I mentioned earlier. I think the feeling that I had afterwards and I then tried to communicate was like a genuine feeling, really heartbroken because of seeing it in a way that I wouldn’t have a few years before, but really seeing it as this incredible rejection of huge parts of the community in favour of being seen to be aligned with powerful institutions. I was very genuinely upset in a way that I think some of my friends and other people found confusing or surprising.
F: But on the flip side of that, meeting more people through abolition in various different forms – lots of people doing lots of different things, but feeling much more maybe genuine Pride in those situations than Pride pride has ever made me feel. Maybe so accessing.
K: Yeah, I get that.
F:This is what that actually means. I think I’ve wonder maybe a million miles away from the topic.
K: I’m here for it! Yeah. So you wrote your PhD thesis on the connection between relationships with weight and shape and trans experiences. And I would love to hear more about that, please.
F: Okay, let’s see if I can, I’ve had enough practice at this now that I should be able to describe it in ways that can be followed. It took a while! Yeah. So I finished my thesis, my PhD last year, the end of last year. It was a long process, but also really cool too, like the conversations I had, really amazing, very grateful. And the reason for doing it was partly personal. So having had difficulties in my early 20s around body image and engaging in some more kind of harmful behaviours around food at the time, and then recovering from that through reading a lot about it to understand, like, why did it feel the way it felt? And why did that feel like something that would be a solution? Like, why did that feel that way? And having chats just informally with other people about it and the overwhelming response being a kind of almost intuitive recognition in a way that was interesting to me, a lot of those conversations, it was like oh well yes that’s obvious. Which was interesting. Like why would it be obvious necessarily? So it was partly that and then looking for other research that had already been done and finding that. So there were a lot of studies that were kind of large scale, asking standard sets of questions about behaviours that people had engaged in the past month, past year, and then comparing those and saying there’s a heightened level of restricted eating or XYZ for trans and gender diversity within this sample, saying, like, obviously something is going on. But then where the studies were trying to or were offering explanations, finding that often those were very limited and very over-simplistic. It would be in lots of words and written in a particular way, but essentially the conclusion would be like, well, trans people hate their bodies, so obviously they’re more likely to feel distressed about them and have disordered eating. And feeling like that was just very far away from instinctively how I yeah, just feeling like that doesn’t seem right because it’s very fixing. It’s very kind of like defining transness in terms of this stuff. And people have been saying that that’s wrong and bullshit for various reasons for a long time, basically wanting to point out that dysphoria is important and we need to understand that much better than we currently do in terms of the fact that it looks different to different people and it looks different in different settings. Dysphoria isn’t a thing that exists in a vacuum. It happens in our way that we’re positioned in how other people read us, and that’s changing all the time. So the point of the PhD was to interview trans and gender diverse people, and explore in those interviews how they sell about weight and shape and how they described things that they did that were related to weight and shape, with the hope of exploring like both things that were painful – so some people would talk about disordered eating or things that they understood as part of that, but also things that were like pleasurable or joyful or healing, which was kind of the reason for framing it in terms of relationship with weight and shape as opposed to disordered eating, which other people have focused more on disordered eating. And that’s still very useful, but that was kind of the reason for doing that. And then the outcomes from the interviews basically were that essentially weight and shape are complicated. Big finding!
F: Yeah. But much more complicated, I guess. Much more complicated than just this group of people by definition hate their bodies. And that leads to XYZ, saying that how people felt about weight and shape varied depending on what else is going on. And then so within that, drawing attention to interpersonal things. So weight and shape feeling sometimes like a way if you can change that or do things for people who were able to consciously change the weight and shape of their body. But it was a way to try to in some situations influence how other people would then see and receive them as an accessible thing about the body. And then also in terms of care pathways and accessing gender affirming care. So there’s been some other research that was saying like when people are in distress then they access interventions that they need care that they need, that then the distress is alleviated. And disordered eating symptoms, things that are classed in that way, are alleviated. But in the interviews that I was having, there was this very clear distinction between care and treatment which for people who were seeking it, that was associated with relief in some cases, but also having control over the choices that you make about your own body. And that’s also tied up very much with weight and shape in a lot of more eating disorder literature, things around kind of having control over your own body.
F: But that was very distinct from the experience of trying to access that care. So people’s experiences of navigating care pathways and the way that gender affirming care is structured in the UK specifically at the moment, that was in various different ways a source of harm. Sometimes it was very directly related to weight and shape. So for some people that was coming up very hard against BMI thresholds for treatment. So having access withheld on the basis of kind of weight loss requirements and for other people it was being in a clinical setting and having judgments made about your body and your appearance and your gender presentation in a situation where you’re not in a position of power to challenge that. And that then afterwards a way of coping with that or a way of coping with really long waiting lists was to turn to weight and shape related behaviours as something that people could have immediate access to, that they were like, this is something that I can have power over.
K: So it’s almost like counter to that narrative that transness causes body related behaviours. It’s actually transphobia in this case that’s causing body related behaviours, which is just turning the thing upside down, really, and making this connection between different forms of body oppressions and being like, yeah, that there is a connection, but it’s not the connection that you are seeing. Yeah, there’s just a certain story that they’re trying to tell or two things that are very pathologised and both treated really badly. In a way, it makes sense that they would become interrelated and yeah, that the solutions might be the same of like self determination, autonomy, control. Kind of makes sense. Really.
F: Yeah, that! That was a really good way of summing it up. Yeah. Because if you frame it in one way, if you frame it this way, that there’s this group of people and they are the way they are, and it’s fixed and we can define that, and then it links in this very simplistic way, then that all fits within the way that things currently work. So what it points to, I’m mean not to get cynical about it. But then the clinicians working within current structures can say like, we need more resources for screening people for eating disorders. Or we need more resources. When actually the bigger source of harm might be having to navigate those structures in the first place. As opposed to like the solution is just funneling people more in a way. If anything, with more scrutiny on what they’re doing. And then from my perspective, and what hopefully I can use this to argue a bit is that’s completely the opposite of what people need is more scrutiny, more like, what are you doing? More like this fill out this questionnaire in order to actually access gender affirming care, and we will determine if your relationship with your body… whereas if you look at it from the other way, then you have to tackle like fat phobic healthcare and change the ways that that works structurally. You have to invest in hugely transforming the way that gender affirming care is delivered and that’s much less, people are much less inclined to do that.
K: There’s not funding for that. Like, redesign the whole thing.
F: But I think it’s trying to argue that, like, look, you cannot want to do that all that you like, but the longer that you don’t do it, the longer these kind of like, oh, baffling inequality, elevated levels of whatever that will just persist until these more fundamental things are addressed. You can try to do it the other way, but you’re essentially just being like, like, I don’t know, insisting that whatever’s being presented as the easy fix is categorically not going to work.
K: It’s interesting, isn’t it, how I think for a lot of us, that just seems super intuitive – as you are using that word – and super logical that these things will be connected, that people’s relationship to their bodies are complex, that we’re all over the map, that fundamental oppression is going to be probably a very big factor in that. And those things are also interconnected. First, I think it just seems really clear and I’m always surprised when people are like, no, it’s this other very weird and very simplistic thing and then they’re just very baffled that it doesn’t work. And I remember there was something about there was like this huge, very expensive research project by non sex workers on sex work and they discovered after many years of investing, I don’t know how much money, that sex workers did better when sex work wasn’t criminalised. And we’re in a room of sex workers, we’re like, wow, who could have imagined such a thing? I wish you’d given us those 10 million, whatever. Sometimes it’s actually not about fixing the thing and it’s just kind of like somebody’s getting an advantage from that system in a way. It’s like they don’t actually want to challenge the power or something. In that case, sometimes I’m confused also just by big academic projects that prove something that was really clear – which is not like your PhD, because of course I think there are different ways of doing it where you’re actually like, okay, this is an analysis and own voices. Like, let’s actually hear some of those voices for a while because the analysis is going to be different to the BMI-index-operating doctor who just never thought about those things and doesn’t have that information. But on that I’m curious like what happens once you’ve written a PhD because I remember it was a huge part of your life. I feel like it probably still is. I’ve asked you this before, but I’m still very bad with academic things like, the paper itself and the things you’ve written. That’s something that people can now access and it can be used in examples and academic discourse and things. Yeah, I’m curious like how that gets back to, for example, some of the people you are interviewing or how does that come back to, for example, the trans community so that we can kind of use it and reference it ourselves if we’re not like in the academic circles.
F: I think there’s a part of this which is that I’m still figuring out how best to do that to an extent. So there’s the thesis which is kind of Googleable and it can just be downloaded as a PDF. It’s very long. So I don’t know. I don’t know that people will be flocking to do that. But then there’s on an academic side of things, there’s kind of usually what people will do, which I’m kind of in the process of working on at the moment, is they will take one or two chapters and turn those into articles to submit to journals and then that can give things the weight of someone being like, oh, there’s this study and blah, blah, blah. For that case, it’s kind of me doing a better job at some point of writing out essentially like, this is what the article says and this is the citation because that’s how people use articles, anyway, I mean, it’s all very weird and kind of like you were saying before, like, that my work isn’t necessarily like that. And I’m not sure that it isn’t like that and I’m not sure that any of academia isn’t a bit like that because it feels weird to do it and be like, because to me, the things that I’m saying, those are things that would come out of just a conversation between trans people, which essentially is what it was. It was just written up in a way and citing like a million different things. And that feels that does feel weird and I think is one of the reasons why throughout it, it felt for myself I needed to be doing other things, that the effect of them was happening now as opposed to because with academic stuff, you’re kind of trying to add stuff to a tide that will over time become the accepted standard. But that is slow. And it feels frustrating in that way of like if people would just listen, if people just listened and then actually did things based on all different kinds of communities, what they’re just saying you didn’t have to try to funnel that through all these different stupid channels in ways that hold weight in different settings. So given that that’s the case, doing things around that work has felt really important the whole way through. I think once there are some kind of journal article type things to direct you, then I don’t know, it will be me thinking about ways of equipping people to use that in a way it’s kind of related, but it doesn’t draw in my own research so much. But for people I know looking up published studies around the risks involved with gender affirming surgeries of different kinds, for people with higher BMIs which essentially don’t exist, but saying like, look, there’s this multicenter thing, there’s this study, this study. So here’s a condensed version of what the study says and sending that to people in the hope that if they go into a consultation with a surgeon that they’re able to say there is no evidence, there’s no evidence or the risks of this. And that doesn’t secure a good outcome necessarily.
K: It’s another tool and it’s another thing to be to kind of support someone in that situation. I mean, I also really think that out of those conversations that you’ve been having and this one and all of them, I think that it’s very focused on this outcome of like, writing a paper and what happens to that in kind of academic worlds. But I can imagine that those conversations you had were super-fruitful and I can imagine that those connections that happen, that you’re putting these two things on the table that are not often connected in smart and radical ways, let’s say, as you were saying, like, the usual connection of these two things is like very problematic. Somehow I just feel like those conversations can create and often this is actually how it works in marginal communities. It will be some kind of survival guide for people who are affected by both of these things. And how do you navigate the medical complex? How do you, like exactly, have things to reference when you’re facing the doctor and you’re like, well, actually there’s a paper here and use those as kind of tools and I think it’s just so often really informal, those things. I’m thinking of like a survival guide. It doesn’t actually have to be like a zine or a website, it’s just like that’s just what we’re doing all the time. We’re just constantly giving each other information and passing on ideas and supporting each other and just like, oh yeah, this is how you navigate this terrible thing that we have to navigate as marginal people and yeah, so I can definitely see it just being part of that kind of ongoing process where we’re all just finding informal ways to support each other. And also you’ve created this tool that people can literally use in specific situations, which, I don’t know, sounds amazing.
F: Yeah, I mean, it’s a helpful question because I’m like, I guess part of that because I have this general idea about producing some kind of accessible, maybe illustrated, partly illustrated like a graphic layout of the findings. And now I’m thinking, oh, maybe cool to have in there that kind of summary of like if you’re experiencing this, even if they won’t listen to you, just know that there is no evidence base for your care being withheld in this way here and here.
K: Right. That would be so useful, I think. And it’s like you have inside knowledge as well of like what people are talking about outside of trans communities and like cis-gatekeeping communities or like the doctor with the BMI brain or something. It’s like there’s kind of have like a perspective on that. I think it’d be super useful for people
K: sorry to be creating more projects for you
F: No no, because this is like a back burner one, but because it’s not kind of covered in my regular job at the moment, so it’s just kind of working out, blocking out time at some point to just kind of get it done. But it’s useful to think through how to make things usable, basically, because there is like academic papers are given like a specific kind of weight in institutions and especially even just using language like evidence based and stuff like that. It links into how those things work and the things that are considered legitimate and they’re very often behind like a pay wall and stuff for people to access. But in most cases, you don’t need to access and read the entire article. You need the author names and the year, because in conversation like that, then it sounds to people like, oh, this is a thing. And then to be able to say, like, essentially what they’re saying is, there’s no evidence for this thing that you’re doing, but it’s literally inaccessible. But also how to use that kind of stuff is very inaccessible.
K: Yeah. I think for me, like, growing up, academia seemed like a very kind of distant world. I still have some fear of it. I’m still kind of like, oh, what is a PhD? Yeah, what is it about? And I think there’s a certain prestige to, like, a paper that’s been published. I also have it with novels. Sometimes being published is somehow better than not being published. It doesn’t mean actually anything about what the book is. 50 Shades of Gray was published. That doesn’t mean anything – very published. And, yeah, somehow there is these kind of arbitrary decisions of, like, this thing is this, and therefore it has more prestige and it’s more important. And sometimes the most important stories are the ones that just people tell each other, I don’t know, over a cup of tea. And sometimes the most important conversations are people sitting on a sofa having a chat about something, and those are the ones that maybe save lives. And there’s something about kind of taking away that prestige. But then also, as I understand that, because there’s so much rigor and so much accuracy and precision and checking things in, for example, writing a PhD, I feel like what you’ve created is something so precise and evidence based, reclaiming the term a little bit. I feel like, therefore, if that can be made accessible to people, it’s so useful. I feel like there’s something, like, really precise. It’s not just like, oh, yeah, well, I had this thing, and I kind of imagine this thing might be true or something, which is basically how I’m always like living life. It’s like, no, it’s a real thing. And at least for the scientific part of me, that’s true. Right. It’s not just like, I feel like birds are doing this thing. It’s like, well, there’s a paper that says something about that, and maybe that both of those things are true. But I think it is a really important part of helping people survive and navigate things. It’s interesting because I think I’ve always perceived you as being kind of a little bit between both of those worlds of, like, in community activism and particularly invisible activism that nobody really kind of notices and working really hard with super marginal people and writing papers about things and somehow bringing those two worlds together. And I feel like that’s just so important because so often academics aren’t particularly showing up for marginal communities or doing a thing. And sometimes people are really doing things but don’t have access to that or just aren’t interested in the precision and the rigor. And I feel like having one foot in both of those worlds is a really powerful gift to the community.
F: Oh, I hope so. It’s funny, it probably isn’t so common that I would like it really feels I feel like I couldn’t, like I was saying before, I feel like I can’t do one without the other. Then it does feel beneficial. Like I’m so wary of the kind of disappearing off into the thing of academia sometimes just losing a sense of what it is that it’s supposed to be doing that feels crucial in a way.
K: To stay grounded in like, what’s really happening and what people need?
F: Yeah. So that I don’t, in doing the more academic work as well, that I don’t ever lose a sense of like, what is this for? That might be in a really long term way, but it still feels grounded in something, like it should still be contributing to something.
K: Yeah. I sometimes have a similar kind of tension or dilemma or something between writing and just spending a lot of hours in a happy little fictional world and then, like, doing an actual thing and a little bit of a balance is really helpful because then those two things feed into each other. It also keeps me grounded and real and also inspired and uplifted because I just need both of those things to keep going, I think.
F: Well, then other people do too. I mean, it’s just the other way around, what you were saying to me. But then those worlds become sustaining to other people as well. Sustaining and also sources of different ways of thinking about what you want to do, like what things do you want to work towards or contribute to that other people are working towards. Like, how do you want to be situated, where do you want to be in all of that stuff and be inhabiting that kind of fictional world? It helps people to work those things out, I think.
K: Yeah, I agree. So are there any groups or organisations or projects that you’d like to shout out?
F: I’m excited to talk about some of these because I don’t know. I mean. That’s kind of like I was saying before about connecting with maybe feeling more kind of alienated from the more mainstream spaces and scenes and stuff. But at the same time making these connections. Which are places where I feel genuine, like pride and hope and things being in, trying to be in collaboration and stuff in connection with other groups is the real source of that as well. That feeling. So, first of all, who I mentioned earlier, Bent Bars, who’ve been doing what they’ve been doing for quite a while now, I think it’s ten plus years. Hopefully I’m not wrong about that, but I know they’ve been around for definitely a lot longer than we have. And who are a pen pal project which is specifically focused on LGBTQ plus people inside. So linking people up with pen pals on the outside. So that’s most of what they do. And they’ve also done some really cool, they’ve produced some really amazing resources. So they did produced a series of fact sheets about trans people inside and specifically trans women inside and trans feminine people inside to kind of counteract a lot of media scare mongering and misinformation basically, really amazing.
K: That’s amazing.
F: And they’ve also worked with the Prisons Advice Service to produce specific rights guides. So there’s an LGB rights guide and then there’s a Trans prisoner specific rights guide. They’re great we send a lot of those in. A really amazing resource to send. So Bent Bars do a lot of really cool stuff.
A newer group who set up in the past year is the Nejma Collective, who are a collective of Muslim activists who are supporting Muslim people inside specifically. So over the past year they ran a well, towards the start of the year they ran a fundraiser, managed to raise a bunch of money, which was great. And they’re starting off at the moment by facilitating grants for people and then that’s going to be the kind of foundation on which they’re going to build communication to find out what people’s most pressing needs are and organise around that, which has been really cool to see that group develop. And we had a lot of contact early on because they basically saying that this is how we do things. I think at first they were planning to be more of a books project specifically. But they’re approaching it a bit more in a bit of a different way. Which also for us it’s really useful and interesting as well to look to see that from outsider and be like, okay, that’s a different way of approaching that and maybe they’re going to get more of a sense of what people’s priorities are on the inside and maybe there’s a way in which we can be doing that as well that we aren’t currently doing. The books are kind of the thing through which we make contact and then hopefully build some sense of connection and then there’s kind of an easy thing, but maybe we can be doing parts of that differently. So they’re really cool, very excited to see what they go on to do.
A group that’s local to Manchester is Kids of Colour, which has been running for a while now and it’s youth focused, obviously, as the name suggests, and they campaigned around various different things over the years. So they did a lot of work with young people experiencing racism at school or college. And then there was a plan in Manchester to introduce police officers into schools and they campaigned around that, managed to get it reversed as a council decision. And the campaign went beyond Manchester as well, became very influential, really high impact, and just recently they’ve been supporting a group of ten young black men who’ve been convicted under a kind of racist it’s not technically joint enterprise, but it’s under conspiracy charge. So it’s linked to joint enterprise in the sense of using hugely inadequate evidence, but presenting a kind of racist gang narrative in order to kind of convict this whole group of young men. So they covered the trial very intensively and then in the months since, they’ve been doing just loads of organising work around supporting the young men. But also they’re running a meeting in the next couple of months around coming up with collective community based responses to serious youth violence that are kind of healing-centred and trauma informed and, yeah, just a really amazing group. And then we also want to shout out CAPE, which is Community Action against Prison Expansion. And they do just loads and loads of direct actions. It’s incredible, really, the way it’s set up for people. So letter writing campaigns, which are very often grounded in providing direct support to specific people, and then those form the foundation of letter campaigns. And then also organising to stop expansion of prisons, which is a really big thing happening in the UK at the moment, expansion and expanding existing prisons and also building new ones, so they kind of feed into and support grassroots campaigns against that. They just do loads. So we’re constantly sign-posting people so those actions on social media and stuff get to take part.
And then my final group project is the Solidarity Apothercary, which you’re already aware of,
F: And Nicole, who runs that, does more stuff than I can remember off the top of my head.
F: But a lot of it includes same direct prison support, lots of prison visits, and also has written, so we’ve sent multiple, like tens of stacks and stacks of her books at this point to people inside. So Prisoners Herbal and Overcoming Burnout and Medicinal Herb Colouring book as well, which are coming from a place of lived experience and are just invaluable in sending to people. And then there’s loads of other stuff, international solidarity stuff and things like that, the loads of really incredible direct work.
I’m going to stop there because talking about all these groups is just really amazing. It makes me feel like yeah, like I was saying before, like a sense of like real hope or things, even though it’s incredibly difficult and all the people involved, you know it is very traumatic for the people involved in various different ways, but just the things that people think to do and then just do just makes me feel.
K: Felix, thank you so much.
F: Thank you. This was so lovely.