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The problems with Graham Linehan’s memoir Tough Crowd

Graham Linehan photographed at a Let Women Speak rally in September 2023 (PA)
Graham Linehan photographed at a Let Women Speak rally in September 2023 (PA)

For roughly half of its 286-page totality, Graham Linehan’s Tough Crowd reads much like any other showbiz memoir. The Irish writer-comedian was once known for co-creating Father Ted and The IT Crowd. He recounts quarrels with hecklers at edgy comedy clubs, and boozy workdays with Dylan Moran writing Black Books. Now, though, he’s best known for his social media attacks on so-called transgender ideology, which take his book on an almighty detour halfway through: it morphs into a lengthy, repetitive rant about transgender rights instead. If you were to strip away the context from Tough Crowd – if you were, say, an avid fan of Father Ted, and hadn’t looked at social media in a decade – the whiplash would be baffling.

Linehan views his life through the prism of someone who has been, in modern parlance, cancelled – a pariah whose dogmatic beliefs have supposedly exiled him from the liberal dinner party circuit. “Some time before I lost everything” begins the book’s very first sentence. His life has been “smashed to smithereens”, he laments. When formerly sympathetic journalists turn on him, it’s a “prison stabbing”. And all this at the hands of the “terroristic” trans rights lobby, which he brands the “gender Stasi” and likens to “nascent Nazis”. (Linehan sees himself as a “campaigner for women’s rights” rather than an “anti-transgender activist”, and is infuriated by Wikipedia’s refusal to allow him to edit his own page accordingly.)

In Tough Crowd, Linehan denies being bigoted – and in fact takes great pains to emphasise his support for same-sex marriage, and insists that he “know[s] more trans people than some of the people calling me transphobic”. In my view, and that of his critics, some of his online remarks have been plainly and unapologetically transphobic: Linehan has characterised the trans rights movement as “paedophilic” and called trans activists and allies “groomers”. It’s true enough that his former life is in tatters: the controversies led to the end of his marriage, the abandonment of a planned, lucrative Father Ted musical, and his agent dropping him. He has been cancelled, he writes in his new book, which has been serialised in two major newspapers.

Tough Crowd is a sad read in a sense, revealing a seemingly intelligent man who once had a rich inner life. Linehan writes about his broad influences – everything from David Lynch to Cheers – with a real enthusiasm and understanding; reading these sections, it is easy to see him again as the figure behind some of the gems of modern British TV comedy. It’s discombobulating, then, when his obsession with a small and persecuted minority group begins to dominate everything.

Although there are more than 100 pages dedicated to criticising the trans rights movement, the book is almost entirely devoid of data. Instead, Linehan relies on case studies – anecdotal instances of trans people who have committed crimes. Because trans people make up a tiny proportion of the general population, the sample size is too small to collect reliable data when it comes to crime. Figures last November suggested there were 230 trans people in UK prisons; 168 of these were trans women (and, despite fear-mongering headlines of women’s prisons being swarmed by those who were assigned male at birth, only six of these trans women were held in female establishments). Activists have in fact argued that it is trans women who are disproportionately at risk in prisons; a report from 2018 revealed that trans women accounted for a fifth of the deaths in female prisons between 2016 and 2018.

Often, Linehan paints trans women as predators, men looking to insinuate themselves into women’s spaces in order to assault them with greater ease. When convenient, they are made out to be victims, brainwashed and exploited young queer people who are convinced to “mutilate” their bodies in the name of ideology. Nowhere are statistics mentioned – the devastating mental health epidemic among trans people or the medical evidence overwhelmingly proving the benefits of gender-affirming care.

Throughout the book, Linehan misgenders trans people at every junction, and obstinately refuses to use modern or preferred terminology. At one point, Linehan quotes from an email he received in 2020 informing him that an episode of The IT Crowd (“The Speech”) was being removed from future broadcasts because of an offensive plotline involving a trans character. “It is fair to say that transphobia has grown in public awareness since this episode was made in 2008, attacks on trans men and women are rising and their place in society is vulnerable and some way from being legitimised,” the letter read.

Linehan follows this quote by asserting: “None of this is true. Statistics actually show that men who present as women are one of the safest demographics in the UK.” He offers no evidence for these claims, and it’s easy to guess why. He doesn’t mention, for example, the numerous reports revealing that newspaper coverage of trans issues has increased significantly over the past decade, or the Office of National Statistics data from earlier this year, which revealed that 28 per cent of trans people had been victims of crime over the past 12 months, compared to 14 per cent of cisgender people. Transphobic hate crimes are continuing to rise year on year in the UK, and the reasons are wide out in the open.

Graham Linehan photographed at the Let Women Speak rally (PA)
Graham Linehan photographed at the Let Women Speak rally (PA)

Elsewhere in Tough Crowd, Linehan makes the groundless claim that the trans “movement” is being driven by the “elite”, but who is this group? Research from the LGBT+ charity Stonewall shows that a staggering 25 per cent of trans people in the UK have experienced homelessness. Contrarily, several of the most prominent figures to have voiced “gender critical” opinions – including the world’s richest man Elon Musk, and billionaire Harry Potter author JK Rowling – rank among the world’s most affluent and powerful people.

In another section, Linehan writes: “I do see on social media cases of sudden unexplained deaths of people in their thirties who transitioned 10 or more years earlier. What’s behind that? Is anyone looking into it? Does anyone care?” It’s hard to see how such rigourless speculation could make its way into print. He asserts that “female prisoners run the risk of receiving extra time on their sentences for ‘misgendering’ trans inmates”, though there have been no reported cases of this happening.

The rare time Linehan does drag data into the spotlight, it’s anything but compelling. At one point, he cites a “major” 2018 study titled “Chest Binding and Care Seeking Among Transmasculine Adults: A Cross-Sectional Study”, claiming that it “reads like the description of a Biblical plague”. (Chest-binding is when trans people, typically trans men, use fabric or tape to flatten their chests.) Linehan’s mention misrepresents the study’s entire point – to determine whether trans people are seeking appropriate medical care. Other studies have shown that the negative health effects of binding can be reduced if trans youths take puberty blockers, but such treatment – which doctors advise is physically reversible – has been targeted by the self-described gender critical lobby, and is currently unavailable in the UK outside of mandatory research. Top surgery – the removal of breast tissue – is another option with overwhelmingly positive results when it comes to mental health and quality of life, but Linehan of course condemns this. So what, exactly, does he propose? There is seemingly no acceptable way to be trans.

This is a recurring feature throughout the book – Linehan’s inability to actually provide solutions for the problems he purports to identify. He suggests that referring to trans men as men can lead to “their understanding of their own health [being] limited or non-existent”, yet elsewhere condemns the use of gender-neutral language around cervix care. He weighs in on the debate around single-sex spaces, but neglects to define how a trans-exclusionary bathroom could possibly be enforced. Would trans men who have medically transitioned be expected to use the women’s restroom? Already, there are documented instances of cis women being harassed after being mistaken for trans women in single-sex toilets; transphobia’s harm does not keep within the lines.

Perhaps the most distasteful moments of Tough Crowd come when Linehan evokes the names of the dead – namely Monty Python star Graham Chapman, whom Linehan suggests might have baulked at contemporary trans politics. Worse still, I would argue, is the mention of the late writer and cultural theorist Mark Fisher, whose 2017 suicide Linehan tacitly – and speciously – associates with his supposed cancellation by the left. In reality, Fisher had struggled with depression throughout his life, and after the highly controversial identity politics essay Linehan credits with his cancellation, he remained a published, respected and engaged-with voice in leftist academia.

Linehan’s own self-proclaimed cancellation is impossible to forget: he alludes to it, with a kind of mirthless acidity, every couple of pages. But Linehan isn’t quite the social outcast he makes himself out to be. For all the betrayals, as he calls them, he still has friends in high places – including Jonathan Ross, whom he describes as “perhaps the only one of our friends who tried to help my wife and me keep our family together”, and IT Crowd star Richard Ayoade, whose effusive praise adorns the book’s dust jacket.

To an extent, the book’s very existence disputes the pretence of Linehan to have been deplatformed. If Linehan had siloed his anti-trans views somewhat, rather than warp them into a life-consuming vocation, his once-glittering TV career might well have remained intact to this day. It’s a testament to the extremity of Linehan’s rhetoric that he has developed such a uniquely toxic reputation among many queer people. “I always assume the best of people. It’s a real shock when they turn out to be frothing lunatics,” he writes. On this, at least, we can agree.