A Trans Man Walks into a Gay Bar, by Harry Nicholas
Harry Nicholas’s ﬁrst book, an autobiographical work, contains an impressive amount of interesting and considered thought in its 224 pages. At its core, the book is an eloquent narrative of his journey from one relationship to another, with transformative self-discovery in between.
But, of course, it is so much more than that, as any such tale always is. Not least because it is very clear that Harry has thought a great deal about his place in patriarchy — from when he was growing up in what he thought was girlhood, via how he’s been perceived through transition to now, existing and socialising in queer male spaces that are almost always cis-sexist and can often also be misogynistic, with transphobic microaggressions. His thoughts are well-framed and prompt consideration, for example:
Words and labels are incredibly important — I love being gay and trans and wearing those labels with pride — but they should breathe life into us rather than suck it out. We should let the light in rather than close a door on it, expanding our horizon of gayness and transness to mean whatever the hell we want them to mean. They’re ours to own.
Harry is a funny, witty writer; I laughed out loud at his comparison of conversations on Grindr with the amazing, heartbreaking “I belong to a culture” monologue from Larry Kramer’s A Normal Heart. He also covers aspects of queer history that were unfamiliar to me, including Princess Seraphina, possibly Britain’s ﬁrst trans or drag appearance, at Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens in 1732; the naked young men painted by Henry Scott Tuke (1858–1929); artists such as John Minton (1917–57) and the other mid-20th century queer artists of Bedford Gardens; and an early gay trans man Lou Sullivan (1951–91), who I only knew from his frustrations around accessing gender-aﬃrming care because he was gay. Harry supplements the book with a bibliography of recommended reading, as well as repeated shout-outs to Juno Roche and Travis Alabanza.
Obviously, I am not the primary target audience of this work — as Harry writes himself, he realised that this book didn’t exist when he needed it himself, to help him understand what it means to be a gay trans man:
What space I can take up; how I navigate sex and dating; … how I can interpret my own masculinity, femininity and campness; how I can navigate (often) hypersexualized gay spaces
But it is definitely the case there is plenty in this book that cis queer men (like me) can also benefit from. Aside from the obvious — like observations about patriarchy and cis-sexism from someone who has been perceived as female in the past and as male now — Harry is, of course, a gay man, with lived experiences that are often no different from that of cis gay men. For example, in a chapter about dating, he describes a very familiar concept of self-worth through being desired:
If nobody wanted to have sex with me, I felt like I was unattractive and therefore valueless as a person.
I think most queer men will be able to recognise that sense of seeking value and validation through the gaze and desire of other men. And, to be honest, anyone can learn from how ﬁrst Covid lockdown helped interrupt his self-destructive way of handling those feelings:
I wanted to fuck and dance and hurt. But a state-enforced lockdown put an end to my man-to-man-to-man-to-man behaviour.
There are eloquent, important sections about the disappearance of queer spaces and about the lack of queer male elders and generational trauma that he describes in the context of his self-examination during lockdown, which segues nicely into the start of a new romantic relationship, with very familiar descriptions of “I was used to fucking ﬁrst, friends later” that I know plenty of queer men will understand only too well.
Likewise, as well as thoroughly deserving the “chapter title of the year award” from his publisher, his “My Knight in a Shining Jockstrap” (IKR!) is also a thoughtful, sensitive description of the anxious exploration of new spaces — I remember the same feelings on my own ﬁrst visit to Clone Zone on Old Compton Street — and also of both dysphoric trauma and how to breathe through a panic attack, that latter also very familiar to me.
Similarly, while some of his ﬁrst experiences visiting saunas are obviously specific to being trans, others have more universal resonance. There is, however, discussion of the parlous state of trans healthcare in the UK; we cis allies should definitely be more aware of quite how dysfunctional, gatekept and cis-sexist our current processes are. (I hold out some hope, with the passage of the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill and the Welsh Government’s support both showing support for rational, evidence-based respect for trans people’s human rights, that at least the devolved health services might be able to make some improvements there.)
There’s also, to be honest, important moments of sitting with my own discomfort as I realise I had made gut-reaction cis-sexist assumptions while reading. Being a cis-queer ally to our trans family is obviously important, especially in this time of fascist rising and hostility, with trans lives being cynically used as a wedge that threatens the LGBTQ+ community as a whole. But allyship is a journey not a destination; we always have more to learn and there is plenty we can learn from Harry here. (One of the bemusing benefits of living through the horrors of renewed fascism is that at least this 47-year-old has become accustomed to learning how to be a better human from people over 2 decades my junior.)
But there’s also beautiful moments that brought tears to my eyes, both early on and later: Harry’s ﬁrst gay male sex is a lovely, “relaxed and joyful” moment, as is his description of coming out as trans to his parents. And his boyfriend — now ﬁancé — Liam sounds like an absolute sweetheart. The way they marked the absent Pride and Glastonbury milestones from 2020 is incredibly romantic, even before the more vulnerable and sensitive conversations Harry describes towards the end of the book. They seem like such a healthy, delightful couple — both from Harry’s writing here and from what I’ve already seen following Harry on Twitter — that it ﬁlls my jaded old heart with joy.
This is an interesting and engaging read as well as covering important topics and, most importantly, providing some much-needed representation for other gay trans men — as he quotes from Derek Jarman: “When I was young the absence of the past was a terror. That’s why I wrote autobiography”. And it’s a quick read too. Because Harry’s prose is so engaging, I ﬁnished reading less than 24 hours; I absolutely devoured this book.
I received an advance copy for free from NetGalley, on the expectation that I would provide an honest review. This review can also be found on Goodreads and NetGalley.
The book cover graphic was copied from the author’s Twitter account and is used without permission for the purpose of criticism and review under section 30(1) of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
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