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The return of gay shame

Munroe Bergdorf’s memoir provides an unwittingly tragic insight into the crisis of homosexuality.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Books Identity Politics UK

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On the face of it, Munroe Bergdorf and Milo Yiannopoulos don’t seem to have much in common. Bergdorf is the hyper-woke transgender model and activist who has supped so much of the identity-politics Kool-Aid that he even thinks homeless people enjoy ‘white privilege’. (Literally. ‘You can be homeless and still have white privilege’, Bergdorf said back in 2017. Make sure you tell the next white beggar who asks you for a couple of quid what an entitled life he leads.) Yiannopoulos, in contrast, is the one-time ‘alt-right’ blowhard who loved nothing more than making fun of fat feminists and riling right-on students. Where Bergdorf sashays with the politically correct establishment, Milo was a star in the dark, weird, ostentatiously un-PC catacombs of the world wide web. Also, Munroe’s star rises, Milo’s has faded (give or take his recent shortlived dalliance with Ye).

And yet, reading Transitional, Bergdorf’s memoir of transgender life, it struck me that there might just be one thing that binds Munroe and Milo: both, essentially, are ‘ex-gay’. Both have liberated themselves from homosexuality. Sure, Yiannopoulos did it in a religious fashion – he was recently reduced to selling Virgin Mary figurines on a Christian YouTube channel – while Bergdorf has done it with impeccable correct-speak, gabbing about embracing ‘sexual fluidity’ over the binary idea that there is ‘[nothing] else other than straight or gay’. But both have moved on, or claim to have moved on, from gay. Is Munroe a woke Milo? It’s worth considering. Certainly we should talk about how the trans ideology more broadly seems to have rehabilitated gay shame and given rise to a twisted new take on ‘gay liberation’. Now it’s less about liberating gays from oppression than liberating oneself from gayness.

Bergdorf’s book is a strange mix of memoir and self-help. Ostensibly it’s about the ‘fluidity of identity and relationships’ – ‘in one way or another, we all transition’, it says on the cover. Really it’s about Bergdorf’s life, from his privileged childhood in Stansted Mountfitchet (‘a picturesque, upper-middle-class, Norman town’) to his sexual and gender agonising in early adulthood to his stardom as a transwoman model for the likes of L’Oréal and British Vogue. It’s mostly your average memoir-as-therapy, the usual Oprah-lite fare that weighs down the shelves of every bookshop these days. (The dedication page goes on about ‘The love that I deserve… The love that I owe to myself.’ Get a room, Munroe and Munroe!) But then there’s the stuff on homosexuality. These sections feel genuinely disconcerting. Squint and in parts it reads like the memoir of a Christian converted out of his homosexuality. Only where those ex-gays saw the light of God’s love, the young gay Bergdorf saw the light of ‘gender transition’, which seemingly revealed to him that he wasn’t gay after all – he was a woman.

The book is riddled with talk of gay shame. Bergdorf seems to have spent much of his early life consumed by shame: ‘I felt ashamed of my identity, my heritage, my skin.’ Shame of his homosexuality – which is how he understood his identity in his teen years – was a particular problem. ‘[Even] though I knew I was gay and even though I understood that being gay was not a thing to be shamed for, I was still ashamed.’ When he was called homophobic names on account of his being ‘effeminate… camp’, he says ‘a part of me believed in their slurs’. He says he dreaded becoming a ‘monster’ if he ‘pursued’ his homosexual urges. He so often heard the idea that ‘being a gay man and being a sexual predator were synonymous’ that he became ‘absolutely terrified that I’d become a monster [too]’. What’s more, his parents didn’t handle his coming out well at all. ‘It’s just a phase’, his mum said. He was forbidden from doing ballet, because boys don’t do that. It was all ‘guilt and fear and negative feelings’, he writes of his gay years.

Then, one day, he discovers that he might not be gay after all. He might be female. The language he uses to describe his journey away from gay might be flawlessly politically correct, but it’s no less alarming for that. Maybe, he says, society had conditioned him to think of himself as gay. ‘I assumed that I must have been male and I assumed that I must have been gay because I was assigned male at birth, because I’m in this body that everybody refers to as male and because I find men’s bodies sexually attractive’, he writes. ‘But’ – but! – perhaps he was being hemmed in by those nasty old sexual binaries that say we’re all either male or female, gay or straight. ‘I didn’t know there was anything else other than straight or gay’, he writes. ‘I didn’t have the reach or understanding or language beyond being gay.’ (My emphasis.) He finally went beyond gay, though, when he started to transition into ‘womanhood’. Finally he found ‘a version of myself that I could be proud of’. Coming out as trans was ‘the beginning of transitioning out of shame’, he says. He was ‘transitioning out of shame and into pride’.

This is sad, no? Picture it another way. Picture a memoir by someone less hip and less starry than Bergdorf, someone who ‘transitions out of shame’ by converting from male homosexuality to male heterosexuality. That would be considered a tragic tale, right? Some woke activists might even agitate for the banning of such a book on the basis that positive depictions of ‘conversion therapy’ could have a negative, esteem-whacking impact on young gay people. So why is Bergdorf’s tale of transitioning away from the shame that consumed him as a gay teen into the pride that came with his intensive surgical transformation into a ‘woman’ considered acceptable, wonderful even? Here’s my sincerely held if possibly controversial take: Bergdorf’s is a story of conversion therapy, too. Only it wasn’t a religious ideology that lifted Bergdorf out of the shame-inducing doldrums of homosexuality – it was the trans ideology.

This is not to suggest Bergdorf is homophobic or politically anti-gay. Indeed, unlike queen turned Bible-basher Milo Yiannopoulos, Bergdorf remains ardently pro-‘queer’. ‘I am… queer as fuck and proudly so’, he writes at one point. (There is, of course, an entire PhD to be written on the intersection, to use woke parlance, between new ‘queer’ ideologies and the rehabilitation of gay shame. Between showy, blue-haired ‘queerness’ on one hand, and the demonisation of same-sex – shudder – relations on the other. But that’s for another time.) And yet one cannot just let slide the fact that, here, we have a memoir by a man who writes at length about his ‘internalised shame’ over his homosexuality, his inability to understand how ‘anyone could be proud to be gay’, who then discovers that, mercifully, there is something beyond gay – transwomanhood; the reordering of the body so that it might better accord with one’s inner feelings. Bergdorf’s great dread was to remain trapped in the ‘purgatory between the hand I was dealt at birth and the outward lie that appeased those around me’. That is, between his seeming maleness – gay maleness at that – and his feeling of womanhood. ‘Liberation’ from this purgatory could only come through transition – including incredibly intrusive forms of bodily and facial surgery – so that Bergdorf’s flesh might become a better representation of his soul.

We need to start being honest about what a regressive idea this is – this idea that an individual’s feelings of shame and self-disgust might be fixed by gender transition. This is an idea feverishly cleaved to not only by woke ideologues like Bergdorf, but also by ruthlessly homophobic regimes like the one in Iran. A 2014 report published by Justice for IranDiagnosing Identities, Wounding Bodies – captured well the Iranian regime’s belief that shameful homosexuals can only become proud citizens by being surgically corrected. The theocratic rulers of Iran believe, it said, that if people display ‘a marked aversion to the normative mannerisms of the gender they have been assigned at birth’, then they should ‘undergo sex-reassignment surgeries in order to successfully uncover the truth about their sex and make it agree with their “true gender”’. Going back even further, to the pathologisation of homosexuality in the 19th century, we find the insulting belief pushed by psychologists that homosexuality was a case of a ‘female soul inhabit[ing] a male body’. Anyone else feel uncomfortable that the old homophobic view that male gayness is trapped femaleness seems to be making a comeback?

It seems increasingly clear that homophobia – whether of the old-fashioned, the woke or the ‘internalised’ variety – is a key component of trans thinking. Whistleblowers at gender clinics for children have described trans interventions as ‘conversion therapy for kids’. For her new book on the rise and fall of the Tavistock Clinic – Time To ThinkHannah Barnes spoke to gender clinicians who became concerned that some kids were transitioning after experiencing homophobic bullying and shame. A couple of years ago, a former gender clinician said of the kids being treated: ‘We heard a lot of homophobia… A lot of the girls would come in and say, “I’m not a lesbian. I fell in love with my best girl friend but then I went online and realised I’m not a lesbian, I’m a boy. Phew.”’ And now we have a memoir by one of the best-known transgender figures in the UK talking about his gender transition as a ‘transitioning out of shame and into pride’. What’s going on here?

Bergdorf’s ‘transitioning’ involved adopting the mannerisms of womanhood. It has always struck me as highly odd that the woke bemoan so-called cultural appropriation and yet are perfectly fine with men appropriating the language and ‘look’ of womanhood. He writes about starting to ‘look more and more like society’s idea of a woman’. He even seems to welcome the downsides of womanhood, such as being pestered by men. When he finds himself being sexually objectified, he feels relieved that people ‘found me desirable’. These were ‘breadcrumbs of validation… being fetishised felt like genuine affection’. Before long he’s a bona fide oppressed woman, to the extent that he starts to ‘internalise… misogynistic narrative[s]’. ‘I am a woman’, he says. And to the ‘TERFs’ who say otherwise, who insist that if you’re born male you’ll always be male, he says they just ‘fear liberation for everyone, as if a trans woman being treated like a human being somehow negates their own sense of oppression as women’. Daft TERFs – what do you mere women know about the world, about suffering?

Bergdorf’s rather arrogant adoption of ‘womanhood’ confirms just how many social groups lose out as a consequence of the trans hysteria. Gays, who are implicitly told that greater pride might lie in the surgical correction of their physical constitutions, and women, whose experiences are co-opted by born males. It seems to me that Bergdorf is using the language of ‘liberation’ to describe what other people more honestly refer to as ‘conversion’. Show me the difference between his ‘liberation’ from his feelings of gay shame and someone else’s ‘conversion’ from their shameful homosexuality. Indeed, if anything the trans ideology’s enticement of young gay men and lesbians into the shady sphere of surgical correction is worse than religious-style conversion therapy. There is always a way back for the young homosexual who believes that he has been converted to heterosexuality. There’s no way back for Munroe Bergdorf. He’s gone too far. He will never be a gay man again. That is tragic, in my view; a testament to how the ideal of gay liberation has been so thoroughly warped that it now means its opposite.

Brendan O’Neill is spiked’s chief political writer and host of the spiked podcast, The Brendan O’Neill Show. Subscribe to the podcast here. And find Brendan on Instagram: @burntoakboy

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Books Identity Politics UK

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