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- Harry Nicholas walks into a gay bar - 15 May, 2023
The author sat down with Vada to discuss male privilege, writing about sex and how he wants to use his experiences to start new conversations.
It’s a weekday morning on Old Compton Street in Soho and Harry Nicholas is having his picture taken in front of the Admiral Duncan. Rain clouds have parted just in time to allow the pub’s blue facade to form the backdrop of our photoshoot. Meanwhile, I’m busy minding his bag. This Soho landmark is just one of several iconic queer locations which punctuate Nicholas’s debut book, A Trans Man Walks Into A Gay Bar.
Much like the book’s title, Nicholas does just that. “Shall we ask if we can shoot inside?” he suggests to me and photographer, Priyan Odedra. As we step out from the glare of the morning sun, the pub is empty apart from a few plumbers who are busy working before opening time. It’s a far cry away from the pub that Nicholas describes in the book – a place where he’d end up on a night out, dancing with drag queens.
We’re also hundreds of miles away from where Nicholas grew up, in a rural village in Lancashire. The nearest queer scene for him was in Manchester, but he tells me that he wasn’t allowed to go there as a teenager, as it was “a big scary city”. The first time he got the bus to Manchester, he stayed on until the last stop. The route took him around the outskirts of the Gay Village, which for Nicholas was a way to tiptoe around queerness, at a time when it felt inaccessible for him.
Now living in London, he understands why queer people do gravitate towards big cities. “It’s very difficult to exist outside of that and be the only one, or feel like you’re the only one,” he says. “I think for that reason, I’d always have to be around a city or within proximity to queerness, because it feels like home to me.”
Inspired to write this book by Brontez Purnell, the author of 100 Boyfriends and Johnny Would You Love Me If My Dick Were Bigger, Nicholas says he was surprised by just how shocking those books were. “Not shocking to us as queer people, but just shocking in general for the publishing industry,” he tells me later over coffee in the basement of a coffee shop off Carnaby Street. “Just that no holes barred approach to how messy it is to be queer, and what we think in our brains, but not necessarily put down on paper.” It gave him a lot of comfort, he says, when it came to writing his own book, to know that others had come before him and shared some of their deepest intimacies on the pages of books.
A Trans Man Walks Into A Gay Bar is filled with stories that speak to an audience that, yes, are queer, but also those who are looking at understanding what it is really like to be queer. As Nicholas puts it, “This book was never about the palatable side of queerness.” When I remark that this must have been a somewhat exposing experience for him, he replies that it was something he felt was a necessity. “These are conversations that need to be had,” he shares. “But they’re not conversations that are necessarily for my mum.”
Has Nicoholas’s mum read it? “She has read the book, yeah, at her own risk,” he says. “But I think it’s important not to do something that my parents and my family were going to be okay with. It was always about the truth, and the conversations that we need to be having, that we haven’t had before.”
For him, there were two contrasting elements he had in mind, when he sat down to write this book. Firstly, the thought of his former boss or distant cousins reading about his sex life. The second, the notion of silence. “Being silent means that our stories are not being heard, and the reality of our lives not being heard,” explains Nicholas. “It’s a relatively easy sacrifice to make, as I feel very passionate that the reality of queer lives is shared.”
My interview with Nicholas is taking place months before the book’s publication date, yet reviews are already starting to make their way to him. One review he’s keen to share with me is a reader’s wish that there had been more sex in it. “Me too!” he laughs. “But I can’t write what didn’t happen.” It’s a topic that he’d given a lot of thought to when writing, wondering if he had put too much sex in the book, because conversations about trans sex in books are still few and far between.
He tells me that he wanted to be considerate of other people when writing about these experiences. “It’s such a personal experience and for the majority of the time, it involves other people. So, when you’re writing a memoir, you need to be really conscious of what was going on in your head during those experiences and being honest. But also you need to be respectful of the other person who was in that situation as well, and what they were thinking and feeling.”
Nicholas argues that for him the importance of writing about sex isn’t necessarily the who or the where questions. “For me if you get to the truth of the moment and how you felt, and the essence of it, that’s the truth that you need to get to.”
Whilst I think most would agree that this book is uplifting, Nicholas does share some challenging experiences with his readers. I can imagine, I venture, that this must’ve brought back some memories that were difficult to relive. “I think there definitely were, and I wouldn’t even say they were therapeutic, they’re just upsetting.” Nicholas brings up the time he was told by a pharmacist that he couldn’t have access to the morning after pill. “I got really angry about that again, and I think I channeled a lot of that anger into my writing. But also, that needs to be written, because I haven’t seen those conversations talked about before.”
We move on to coming out on the dancefloor. It’s one of the sections in the book that stands out for me, whereby Nicholas is kissing a guy on the dancefloor and comes out as trans to him. His reply, that he already knew because he followed Nicholas on Twitter, perhaps demonstrates the power of social media amongst the queer community. But for Nicholas it was also a relief.
It’s something that he describes in his book as being unfair: the notion that trans people need to think about coming out in a queer venue. “I’d be dancing and flirting and kissing. Then people would be like, ‘Do you want to come back to mine?’” he tells me. “When do I tell you that I’m trans? Is it before we make out? Is it when we’re making out? When is the right time? And the whole idea of queer clubs in the first instance is that you don’t have to come out, so I found that I didn’t have the answers.” He says that he takes each situation as it comes, but that the idea of when to come out as trans is something that he still feels he needs to question. “From whether it’s safe to do so, or not, to whether I’m going to be rejected by the other person.”
When he does come out as trans, some people have had the response that he is keeping a secret from them. It couldn’t be further from the truth, Nicholas tells me, saying that he thinks this response comes from a place of assumption. “If people ask me, I would absolutely say. I don’t hide it in any sense. But just the fact they don’t immediately know something and read that as a secret, when it’s not. That makes me feel quite angry, because that’s on them. It’s their assumption.”
Speaking of assumptions, I ask Nicholas about if he thinks there is progress being made when it comes to how people view and talk about gender. I give the example of people sharing their pronouns on their social media bios or work email signatures. “I’m starting to see that a little,” he replies. “I think if people are gender nonconforming, be that in their clothing, their appearance, then people are going to check for your pronouns and be more respectful in that sense.”
He thinks we are yet to have reached a point where people aren’t making any assumptions about people’s gender. “We’re designed to make very quick-fire judgements as to what’s safe and what isn’t, and what people’s interests are and what they’re not. But I think when it comes to gender, we should be trying to decode that a little bit more sensitively.”
Male privilege is something that Nicholas has reflected on whilst writing this book. Initially experiencing queer venues for the first time as a queer woman, he writes in the book how when he transitioned, he suddenly felt seen in these spaces. “I felt quite ignored in queer bars sometimes by gay men,” he recalls. “I felt like they pushed me away quite a lot and they ignored women.” Nicholas explains to me that he feels he has seen two very different sides to these venues, and attributes other people’s behaviour towards him based on his appearance.
This privilege extends beyond the walls of queer spaces too. Nicholas says that after he transitioned, he would be walking down the street and women would move aside for him. “It was always women, without a shadow of a doubt, that would move. And I found that really sad, because that’s a very clear example of how in society, women feel like they have to make space for men.”
Nicholas says that he feels the need to both acknowledge his male privilege, but also be the best man he can be. For him, that means lifting women up and not accepting the way society treats women. How does he do that, I ask. “When I’m in meetings, I will let women finish speaking.” It’s something that Nicholas noticed when transitioning. “My voice got deep, and people started to listen. I guess little things like that can give women the space to actually speak, and have the same room as men have.”
Although he describes himself to me as being a hopeful person, he doesn’t think we’ll get to a point of true gender equality during his lifetime. “Being happy as a trans person feels like a radical act,” says Nicholas. “So I endeavour to be happy, joyful and content, whilst also recognising the struggles that we’re still facing.”
Harry Nicholas is featured on Vada’s latest digital cover, photographed by Priyan Odedra. His debut book A Trans Man Walks Into a Gay Bar: A Journey of Self (and Sexual) Discovery, is published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers and comes out on 18th May 2023.