Hi! I’m Charlie Oughton! You may remember me as a journalist for crime publications, horror outlets and, of course, a tasteful fashion feature in this publication’s very own pilot issue! I’m here to tell you how my fashion sense got the living shit kicked out of me a few weeks ago and what the aftermath has pissed me off by telling me about society. Welcome to my flashback.
Firstly, let’s do that photo shoot. I was very amused when the folks who run The Reprobate asked me to take part. I have always had a rather twangy fashion sense and the idea of messing about at the graffiti-covered viaduct in London where it was shot felt like a nice way to undercut the idea that you have to have money to have style. The most expensive thing I think I had on was my hat (this will be important later). It cost me £15 from a local market and I customised it myself by sewing feathers, skulls and other paraphernalia into the band. It made me feel like a cross between Prince Charming, The Fool Tarot and P T Barnum. I wasn’t overly worried about going down to the viaduct at night to take the photos as that point the gentrification hadn’t yet set into the area and no one was going to mug you for a posh watch you didn’t have. I was there at 1am because I didn’t finish work until 12. I didn’t mention anything in the article about being transgender because I didn’t want it to become the focus.
Fast forward to 4th November just gone. It was again 1am and I was walking home along a busy road after a meal out to celebrate signing the contract for my first book. The book is about Stephen King’s IT and focuses on The Losers’ Club – the group of kids who all have something ‘wrong’ with them and band together – one’s black, one’s a ‘girly boy’ etc etc. I was wearing my usual gear – the hat, a black jacket and a snazzy waistcoat. Rounding the corner onto the recently-renovated High Street, I was initially oblivious to the group coming towards me. Historically, unless you got involved in crime or waived around your expensive phone going through the housing estates, you were basically okay. As I went to pass the group, I noticed the guy at the front was opening his mouth to talk to me. I thought it’d be banter. Instead, he asked me if I was a man or a woman. I replied a man – I used to get the query periodically. He responded, “Well, you fucking ugly then”. Taken aback a little, I smirked and responded, “Fuck you, leave me alone”. Sticks and stones. A second later I felt a force to my head: a girl had smashed the hat off me and nicked it. I tried to grab it back. The original guy, seeming genuinely incensed at my audacity, exclaimed, “How dare you!” before punching me in the side of the head. Then, I was being punched and pushed from all sides by all of them. I apologised. I tried to run. The girl who had stolen my hat followed me into the road and, as I tried to calm her down and get away, she kicked me until I fell over. I instinctively curled into a ball and lay there as she kicked me, slammed her fists down on me and stamped on me repeatedly from my thighs to my head. Two cars came past while she was at it. Her group seemed to be advancing forwards so I purposefully screamed to indicate submission and then played dead. I was lying slap-bang in the middle of the road right next to a junction. They ran off laughing. I later found out there had been seven of them. Seven against one.
The second I realized they had gone, I rang my other half and then the police.
OH MY GOD. YOU GRASSED!?!
Yes. I did. Because it wasn’t a robbery motivated by poverty – they didn’t even attempt to get the bag I was carrying. It wasn’t even because it was an assault on a stranger. I did it because it was clearly motivated by the fact they thought I was different and because I genuinely believe that if I hadn’t made a noise (there was a restaurant open meters away) things may have turned out very differently.
What follows is basically a series of observations rather than necessarily an argument, because now that the injuries are healing, I am having the fun of dealing with the flashbacks that are breaking my concentration and my sleep.
The police attending the 999 call automatically used ‘that voice’ to ask if I had had anything to drink. Yes, this is subjective, but I noticed they stopped this when I put on my best posh accent. I am an honourable citizen, m’lud, though even if I had been pissed as a fart and swearing like a docker it should not have impacted on how they treated me, friendly though they were. Right from when I had to tell them to go into the restaurant we were next to and interview people, I realised that I was going to be the one who would have to drive the administrative side.
What amazed me was the reaction to the incident. My adrenaline had been so high that I was neither scared nor had any sensation, and was horrified to find that my wrist had been badly broken. I was furious. When I finally got home from hospital the next morning, my first thought was to put something on social media as I was determined these people should be found. I was touched (genuinely) by the hundreds of people who shared the message, offered support and did practical things, like the lovely chap who went through every bin in the area to see if my hat (evidence) had been dumped, and those who linked me to help. The vast majority of my social network are educated to degree level or higher or are very ‘cultured’.
What also struck me, however, was how the incident was interpreted. Some trans friends typed ‘fuck cis people’ – lumping together everyone non-trans; some older people went along the lines of ‘kids today’ as the attackers were all probably mid-teens to early twenties; women said ‘fuck men’ until I reiterated that the stamper was a woman; and some people got twitchy about the fact that I had said the attackers were black, as though it was impolite to say so because of the shit black folks get (several friends regularly post ‘fuck white people’ as their statuses). One or two people also warned me to take out references to colour as they felt it made me look racist. One very carefully praised me for having the guts to ‘highlight the issue’ (they were people of colour themselves). Ironically, a Columbian close-confident had read the attackers as being white because I regularly get irate about ‘white ignorance’.
When you report a crime, you have to go to the police station to give a statement. You have to go over what happened in great detail – I think my interview lasted three hours and a half to discuss something that happened within four minutes. It’s stressful to say the least. They told me before the meeting that they wanted to go to the press with it. Knowing that not all people are au fait with trans-politics (there is only so much time in the day to learn about everything), I rang ahead to speak to the LGBT/Diversity Liaison officer to make sure that matters weren’t made worse by language that the Daily Mail might get excited about. That Diversity officer said that unless I had a learning disability there was no real reason for me to need her support although she’d give it if I wanted it or could signpost me on to someone else. Because I didn’t meet her idea of someone who needed help, she effectively left me to it and anyway, she said the officer in charge knew what he was doing and had dealt with similar cases. That officer in charge, friendly, easy-going bloke though he was, subsequently had me writing down my now non-legal old name on my witness statement and asked well-intentioned though utterly irrelevant questions about my genitalia. Had I not subsequently spoken to a clued-up journalist, that information would still be recorded. I do hope people enjoy the stall that Diversity officer takes around to community centres and learning forums to advertise her services….
Worried that things were taking too long, I took up the offer of help from an experienced journalist friend. Battling against unresponsive police departments, we formulated our own press statement and she circulated it for me. I did it anonymously because I wanted to warn people, because I wanted to safeguard myself and my partner and because I didn’t want to be shoehorned into the position of an activist or poster boy because I disagree with a lot of the activist hymn book and didn’t have the time or energy for awkward conversations or intellectual arguments. By then it was three weeks later and becoming old news. One LGBT-orientated publication picked up on the story (a big name one offered to run it if I gave my name. No.). They rang me when I was high on morphine. The journalist – a friendly chap – wanted me to feed them a line about how, when I thought I was going to die (true), I had thought of my children or my parents. I don’t have kids and my relatives are not in the picture. How to empathise…? He asked me if I had ever cried, saying how he would do if it was him. I responded that at first I couldn’t physically cry because I was in such heavy shock, then that I had to keep it together as I was the one having to do all the chasing with the officials. I couldn’t break down. He sent me a link to the published article. He went to town on the crying part (which is understandable – we’re all voyeuristic creatures at heart). I was grateful the warning was out there.
As there was still nothing from the police, I eventually circulated this story from my own social media despite concerns for my safety. A good friend who lives locally shared it as well and I was alerted to replies to their post in which I was being criticized for spreading – and I quote “toxic fucking masculinity”. The section about not wanting to cry was seen as me saying that boys shouldn’t cry. I was being criticised by somebody who no doubt considers themselves ‘woke’ and having had the opportunity to be educated enough to be able to talk about the press and oppression and citizenship and yet whose empathy bypass had led them to completely ignore the fact the section was about having to keep myself calm while talking to the police while my wrist was waiting for an operation to be held together by a steel plate after being beaten up. From their keyboard, I was the problem. I’d love to hear their take on victim shaming…
People saw it as a reflection of their own prejudices. When I didn’t comply with their views, I was accused of being prejudiced myself. I was also very careful to say that I didn’t want the attackers charged as much as to realise what they had done was wrong. I do believe that – I used to live in an area regularly featured in the ‘broken Britain’ sections of The Sun and rare are the occasions when prison is a cure-all. I also partly said it as I know too many people who get into what are unlovingly called oppression Olympics. That’s when people debate over who wins arguments based on who has the hardest lot in life. ‘Hardest lot’ is inevitably worked out on the basis of the intersectionality, which (roughly speaking) is the idea that somebody who is for instance poor, disabled and speaks in a first language that is not English will have less access to opportunities (and therefore a different life) to somebody who is wealthy, able-bodied and speaks English. The former can easily go to the networking event, the latter is left at home on the Internet. There’s a lot of truth in intersectionality, but it’s not the be all and end all. There is a tendency in society at the moment to look at everything through the prism of oppression Olympics and I was afraid that people would (and did) think that the gang’s activities were understandable because they ostensibly have fewer opportunities than me, as though that excuses what they did.
There is also an assumption that anybody who has an identity that is co-opted into this kind of narrative has a particular set of leftist (as opposed to liberal) politics and is somewhat saintly (note the bias there). Everything for the greater good, yada yada yada. The natural anger you feel after looking up and seeing a girl stamping on your head, holding out her arms to balance with a big grin on her face while periodically turning back to accept the adulation of her gang… that has to be subsumed. I even noticed that the description of the girl was changed depending which publication or organisation I talked to because of the intersectional politics. I gave not one jot about her appearance other than for the fact I wanted her found. She was younger than me, a little bit taller than me and quite chubby. (The latter had arguably mattered – her lack of agility meant that when she was awkwardly stamping on me, if the gang hadn’t been behind her I probably would have tried to fight back because I am very agile and have done some martial arts.) Yet because of the way the narrative is politically charged, we ended up dickering over language because of so-called body fascism. I wound up horrified at my own priorities when a colleague who wrote about the assault for me and also teaches on diversity pointed out her amazement that I was concerned about triggering or upsetting readers with the girl’s description. She was right. It was stupid.
I’m finally worried about what it says about our communities. I have always said that where I live is a very diverse place and that that is its strength. I love the area, but that’s not quite true. Most folks are great – the very diverse congregation at the church next door (of which I am occasionally part) listens to sermons that mix references to The Addams Family with nods praising Chelsea Manning for goodness sake. But…there are shops along our high Street that have looked me up and down and refused to sell me a religious painting saying ‘not for you’; there’s the award-winning tailor who took my money but wouldn’t touch me and refused to measure my inner leg; the street preachers who rail to God against ‘the white man’; the white folks who whisper about ‘other countries’; the gym who refused to do anything about the gang-guy who was yelling about ‘cutting’ somebody (yes, I changed gyms), the cafés opened by nice liberals ‘for the community’ that are filled with all-white clientele and charge a fiver for coffee (religion so often takes the place of opportunity when people feel they’re out of bargaining chips), and finally whoever it was whose retelling of the facts of the attack in the immediate aftermath had me actually going into that restaurant mid-beating, begging for help and being ignored because that is what rich people do. The latter was absolute horse shit. It’s almost a Monty Python sketch, but it spread like wildfire. It spread because it was what they, as people seeing their lives changed by ‘others’, expect to hear and they empathised with me more as a result. We’re none of us perfect – the hipsters piss me off too. We all have issues in our communities that we need to deal with and yes, I made damn sure to correct the rumour unequivocally and in person right there and then. You have to or we’re all screwed. You’ll eventually be that one person left standing whom no one else will defend because they’re too busy covering their own backs over what they fear other people will type, let alone do.
Some positive things have come out of it. After what happened to me and a few other incidents, several local businesses now pay for their staff to get cabs home. People have also started stopping people when others start mouthing off in the street, regardless of what different intersectional backgrounds they come from. Others have started to give backup. It’s not about jockeying to be the ethics winner but seeing how we can honestly help each other live together. That sometimes means acknowledging the emotions that mean you are a bloody human being and are scared and angry. Until we can talk about it honestly – and listen properly – all the well-meaning blogs, articles and activism in the world are pointless, self-aggrandising delusion.
Oh, did they catch them? I heard yesterday: several local businesses were ‘uneasy’ about giving their CCTV footage to the police. When the police eventually got it out of them weeks later, it had been recorded over. Shucks! Imagine! What do you think?
DR CHARLIE OUGHTON