A Trans Man Walks Into a Gay Bar

A Journey of Self (and Sexual) Discovery

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Pub Date May 18 2023 | Archive Date May 17 2023

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'On the bookshelves, there was plenty of stuff on being gay, and much needed, joyous accounts of what it is to be trans, but nothing really that encapsulates what is it to be both - to exist in the hazy terrain between.'

After his relationship with his girlfriend of 5 years ended, Harry realised he was a single adult for the first time - not only that, but a single, transmasculine and newly out gay man.

Despite knowing it was the right decision, the reality of his new situation was terrifying. How could he be a gay man, when he was still learning what it was to be a man? Would the gay community embrace him or reject him? What would gay sex be like? And most importantly, would finding love again be possible?

In this raw, intimate and unflinchingly honest book, we follow Harry as he navigates the sometimes fraught and contradictory worlds of contemporary gay culture as a trans gay man, from Grindr, dating and gay bars, to saunas, sex and ultimately, falling in love. Harry's brave and uplifting journey will show you there is joy in finding who you are.

'On the bookshelves, there was plenty of stuff on being gay, and much needed, joyous accounts of what it is to be trans, but nothing really that encapsulates what is it to be both - to exist in the...

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What means the most to me about this book is the fact that it exists. That I’m able to read about another gay trans man’s experiences and see myself reflected in them - moments like ‘YES I’ve had this thought so many times’ and ‘oh, I really want this in my future’. The author wrote this book with exactly this in mind - not being able to find almost any books by and about gay trans men - and I am very glad that he did.

This book is very meaningful to me on a personal level as a trans person, but in general, the way it is written is also very accessible to cis people looking to read more about being trans. The author does a very good job at presenting important trans issues as well as trans & queer culture and history throughout, in a way that feels very personal but still informative.

Sections that stood out to me the most were the author’s relationship to water as a gay trans man, the whole issue surrounding healthcare and how even non-trans-specific healthcare can be a huge problem for trans people, and also the “but who will love you?” section (because which trans person hasn’t been asked that by their parents).

This quote I think captures very well why I found this book so important:

“Lou Sullivan [a gay trans activist] is quoted as saying, ‘I wanna look like what I am but I don’t know what someone like me looks like’. It’s been 32 years since his death date, and I am starting to see what people who are gay and trans look like, and I’m able to imagine endless possibilities of what we could be in the future. But in the meantime, I’m still searching for people like me.”

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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:
<blockquote>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.</blockquote>
Harry is a funny, witty writer; I laughed out loud at his comparison of conversations on Grindr with the amazing, heartbreaking <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X-vIBq2lTn0">“I belong to a culture” monologue</a> from <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Larry_Kramer">Larry Kramer</a>’s <em><a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Normal_Heart">A Normal Heart</a></em>. He also covers aspects of queer history that were unfamiliar to me, including Princess Seraphina, possibly Britain’s first trans or drag appearance, at <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vauxhall_Gardens">Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens</a> in 1732; the <a href="https://artuk.org/discover/stories/henry-scott-tuke-capturing-light-and-the-homoerotic-gaze">naked young men painted by Henry Scott Tuke</a> (1858–1929); artists such as <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Minton_(artist)">John Minton</a> (1917–57) and the other mid-20th century queer artists of Bedford Gardens; and an early gay trans man <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lou_Sullivan">Lou Sullivan</a> (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 <a href="https://www.stonewall.org.uk/people/juno-roche">Juno Roche</a> and <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Travis_Alabanza">Travis Alabanza</a>.

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:
<blockquote>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</blockquote>
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:
<blockquote>If nobody wanted to have sex with me, I felt like I was unattractive and therefore valueless as a person.</blockquote>
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 <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/COVID-19_lockdown_in_the_United_Kingdom">first Covid lockdown</a> helped interrupt his self-destructive way of handling those feelings:
<blockquote>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.</blockquote>
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 <a href="https://twitter.com/HarryNicholas_/status/1601226301305602049">“chapter title of the year award” from his publisher</a>, 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 <a href="https://www.parliament.scot/bills-and-laws/bills/gender-recognition-reform-scotland-bill">Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill</a> and the <a href="https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-politics-64228256">Welsh Government’s support</a> 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 <em>obviously</em> 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 <a href="https://twitter.com/HarryNicholas_">following Harry on Twitter</a> — 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 <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Derek_Jarman">Derek Jarman</a>: “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.

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Thank you to NetGalley and Jessica Kingsley Publishers for accepting me to be a pre-publication reviewer of this memoir.
Disclaimer: I don’t identify as a trans person (honestly very unsure but right now I’m comfortable using the label cisgender) so I would recommend readings reviews by transgender people. However, this memoir equally talks about being a gay man which I am.

I really did enjoy this book, I think Nicholas is really providing something that is lacking: a gay trans man’s story and discussion of his experiences. Throughout reading I learnt so much about both the trans and gay male experience, queer history, current affairs and lots more. Nicholas is a great storyteller having an effortless wit and likeness to his personality - the humour is never forced and throughout he injects the perfect level of nuance. How this memoir is set out is great, it’s not entirely linear with many sections cross-linking with others but do stick to the topic he is talking about. Personal anecdotes are intertwined with non-fiction like facts and statistics, he references articles, artwork, literature, social media figures and much more. It is certainly a multi-faceted book discussing many things that queer people deal with, he addresses the notion of ‘queer shame’ and the ongoing violence against our community, specifically the emerging transphobic rhetoric, but there is a beautiful exploration of the joy of being queer too. We have a dark past and still a long way to go but this book and Harry’s messages are so inspiring, centring on this notion of banding together which he puts so eloquently here: ‘…that's the epitome of LGBTQ+ pride and why the LGB and the T can never be torn apart. It's the same fight. It's about rejecting the prison of sexuality and gender that was inflicted on us without our consent and saying 'No, that does not fit me.' This fight is about freedom, escaping the barriers and systems that force us all down, and battling to live authentically away from binary, heteronormative structures. It's about being outsiders and owning it. It's about rejecting those who seek to control our authentic lives and dampen us down. Queerness is about creating a new space for us all.’ Don’t that make you wanna fight? I dunno but I just found that his words really spoke to me and this is a trend throughout this book. ‘Queer’ initially meant different or strange or odd and so we shouldn’t really be thriving to ‘fit in’ anymore and I totally fell in love with Nicholas’s philosophy I guess and how he’s learnt to become so much more comfortable in his body and place in society. He truly sounds like such an amazing person and I can only hope more good things come his way.

The subheading of this memoir is ‘a journey of self (and sexual) discovery’ and this is defiantly an accurate one. The author brings us along on a lot of his life events and pivotal events that has made him the human he is today. I think my favourite aspects was the self discovery but I also found the sex-focused topics very insightful too. As a trans gay man I believe he really showed us the beauty of how diverse and multi-faceted our community is. He is also white and British (and male ‘passing’) so has advantages that many people don’t, so a similar book by someone that is part of more sub-communities would be interesting to read of their experiences. That being said, I found a lot of what Nicholas wrote could be extended to other people in a similar position and was a great start and necessary book to fill a space.

This book is written really well and very engaging. I noted down many quotes and made VERY detailed notes on each topic but I won’t share these cause I want you to get the book. Nicholas also kindly provides the source of materials used and recommended reading at the end which I for sure will be checking out. I’ll leave you with a great quote from the start that reminds me we are and must remain a community that sticks together because ‘there is no one way to be gay, trans and queer. We are a million people under one beautiful, horrifyingly-large-if-slightly-misshapen rainbow umbrella.’

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Author Harry Nicholas has gifted the world his story in this memoir/collection of essays that shatters the narrative of Trans brokenness and leans into the messy wonder of being Trans and Queer. A Trans Man Walks Into A Gay Bar is a brilliant look at the life of Nicholas, a man who is both Trans and Gay and is his self-examination of how his existence in these two intersecting communities has formed him as a person. In this book, he offers a blueprint for rejecting the expectations set upon us by our cisgender heteronormative society and being our wonderful gender-diverse queer selves. This book is an essential read for everyone, whether you are Trans or not, because, at its core, it is a tribute to seeing yourself even when the rest of the world cannot.

Available May 18, 2023

Disclosure: I received a complimentary ARC of this book through NetGalley. My review is my honest opinion.

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Thanks to Jessica Kingsley Books & Netgalley for my eARC!

I absolutely loved this memoir by Harry Nicholas - an incredibly warm, funny, honest and poignant account of living life as a gay trans man in the UK. Nicholas was adamant on highlighting the joys of being trans, despite alarmingly increasing levels of anti-trans attitudes in the UK right now, and the violences, small and large, trans people are subject to every day. And he definitely succeeds, I loved every second of this memoir, though of course important to remember that this is but one person’s story.

As a cis lesbian, I don’t have that much in common with Nicholas (though at one point he did feel forced into identifying as a lesbian growing up), but I did feel particularly moved by one life experience we shared. Finally accepting that he was gay, Harry broke up with his longterm girlfriend and found himself faced with the daunting task of navigating the queer dating scene alone, which I related to hard. Our experiences then diverge, and I loved the insight into male gay dating culture.

Nicholas raises interesting points about how phallo-centric male gay culture can be (ie dick pics and Grindr) and he’s very open about his worries about how he as a trans man would be accepted into this world. I cheered him on when he worked up the courage to take up space in traditionally cis-male-dominated spaces like gay saunas & the ponds at Hampstead Heath. Trans healthcare is also highlighted - particularly how woefully unprepared & ignorant healthcare professionals can be when faced with trans folk seeking healthcare, especially sexual healthcare.

Ultimately an affirming and hopeful memoir much needed at a time when rising numbers of people, including LGB people, are expressing anti-trans sentiments. I loved this quote ‘It was less about feeling comfortable within ourselves and more about not making others around us uncomfortable. In short, it was about hiding ourselves and our transness for the benefit of cisgender society.’ By the end of the book, Nicholas shares how he’s less concerned now with presenting a certain way or passing as cis - he just wants to be, and that’s all anyone wants!

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A sweet, powerful, and deeply needed book about a young gay trans man coming into his identity and navigating the world of hookup apps and contemporary politics fights. The writing is relax and conversational, the book's discussions extremely of-the-moment. I cannot tell you how much I WISH something like this had existed when I was in my twenties-- I'm trans and pansexual, and this would've made me imagine my life as something possible, which instead it took me another decade to realize-- and how much I WISH now, as a professor who queer students often seek out for conversation and guidance, I think this book needs to be in the libraries of every high school, college, and university. It may not be for every reader, but for the readers who have needed a voice like Nicholas's, it will be a lifeline.

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Honestly one of the best non-fic books I've picked up in a while. Maybe I'm biased as a queer trans-man but this memoir just hit all the right buttons for me. Harry's nuanced approach to trans-ness and masculinity is so empowering and refreshing. He speaks on how his girlhood shaped him into the man he wanted to be and honestly I resonated so deeply with that. I also really enjoyed that he mentioned how poly relationships are a big part of the queer community.

The memoir focuses on Harry's journey through realizing that he is gay and what that means in a cis-normative society. Incredibly poignant and informative. I learned a lot of UK queer history I never knew about as well!

I wholeheartedly recommend reading this as soon as it's out! I've already pre-ordered for my library and myself!

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Thank you to Net Galley for providing me an ARC in exchange for a review

This book may be the best non-fiction book I have read all year. Not only does this feel like an incredibly important subject issue, that is becoming more relevant every day, but the writing style makes it an accessible and enjoyable read.

'A Trans Man Walks Into a Gay Bar' is both an intensely personal account of Harry Nicholas' transition, and a fascinating guide to both trans and gay culture. Nicholas combines personal anecdotes with wider comments on society and the way that transgender people are treated, providing insights into the trans experience both from his perspective and in a wider context, allowing him to explore aspects that he as a white, passing trans man, may not have personally experienced.

Another thing that really drew me to this book and kept me reading was the writing style. It felt almost conversational, as if i could imagine Nicholas telling the stories to me directly, but never came off as flippant or casual. If I had to draw parallels, it reminded me a lot of Juno Dawson's writing in 'Gender Games', and I feel that 'ATMWIaGB' is a must-read for anyone who enjoyed that book as well. Writing in non-fiction books often faces the challenge of drawing readers in despite not following a traditional narrative structure as fiction does, but the combination of the writing style, personal subject matter, and the way the book tracks through the developments in Nicholas' transition really helped to keep me reading - so much so that at points I couldn't put it down.

If you are someone interested in queer British culture, looking to understand more about trans people in both their struggles and joys - and Nicholas does an excellent job of balancing the good and bad - or a trans person looking to find community and representation that is so sorely lacking, then you simply must read this book. If I could give more than five stars I would!

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