Interview: Going to the Palace
Jen Yockney became the first person to appear in the Honours List with an MBE “for services to the bisexual community” on the Queen’s birthday last June. Tiff asked her some questions (and then Jen added one of her own).
The Honours List! What happens and how did you find out about it?
You get a letter that tells you that you might get an honour, but only that you might, and that you can’t talk to anyone about it. You send back a little reply form saying whether you would be willing to accept. Then you wait a month or so and find out when an official list comes out at about 11pm!
Except for me it worked with a twist, as I was the first non-binary titled person to appear in the honours list, so there was a call a week beforehand to check my pronouns to avoid embarrassment. Which kind of gave the game away.
How did my name go forward? It’s one of those things they don’t tell you. There were public forms for nominating people I found online about ten years ago so I figure some kindly person or people out there liked some things I’d done.
And the day of the announcement?
Was the same 24 hours that the Orlando shootings hit the news. From queer delight back down to earth with a bump in very short succession.
I did get interviewed by the Daily Mail by text message on the day though. They found out that no, the Queen was not aghast at the idea of someone trans getting an honour as I was not the first, and that it was the first Mx honour but that hadn’t ruffled feathers either. At which point it wasn’t scandalous, so they didn’t run it.
Some prominent people have turned down honours due to the association with the British Empire and so forth. How do you feel about that? Did you consider it?
Briefly, though less about the history of empire than from a huge amount of impostor syndrome (“what I do doesn’t merit that”) and gender fear, because for a big ole genderqueer trans woman it felt like a very archaic and binary institution to have to cope with.
That said I grew up a fervent Plaid Cymru teen and really not seeing the monarchy as relevant because of that. So there is a feeling of this being an honour from ‘The Queen’ but not from ‘the Queen of me” – but I see that as more a matter of, England is the country I have chosen to live in, and here is the head of state, here is the system that this country uses to record who it deems to have done good things for our collective benefit.
What does feel weird though is that the honours are the same whether you did something as an unpaid volunteer and with an opportunity cost that you might have been better off not doing it, or if you got paid a nice wage for what you were doing. I wonder about that, because wasn’t the social acknowledgement in those cases the steady pay packet? Though maybe that would be a double-edged sword, with honours that evidently came with a nice salary attached getting more respect.
What’s the big day itself like?
Terrifying! Though in the unlikely event I’m ever there again, it’s actually quite reassuring most of the time you’re living through it. I remember the queuing and the polite chatter with other recipients well, but I have only the most fleeting memory of doing the actual “shake hands and receive your medal” thing. Still, I didn’t fall over or say any rude words, so it didn’t go too badly.
My fears about the gender politics were mostly unfounded: I was politely and discreetly taken to one side for a quick word (terribly sorry but the medals themselves come in female and male versions, they had prepared both but which would I prefer). I suppose while the institution is a hundred years old, the people actually operating it are youngish folk living in London in the modern era, even if they don’t know anyone genderqueer they have seen media icons talking about gender and sexuality and breaking binaries.
And once it’s over the relief and opportunity to post bling-tastic photos of yourself all over your LiveJournal and Facebook is amazing.
After twentysome years what are your hopes for the future and the next generation of bi activists?
I’m not quite ready to hang up my hat yet! Though some day soon…
I suppose with my hopes, the main one comes down to money. Filthy lucre has lots of potential to cause splits and arguments, of course, you should have spent it on this not that. But for most of the time I’ve been around bi stuff there has been no money or next to no money. The entire bi voluntary sector outside of BiCon probably turns over about ten grand a year even now.
But when the policy makers, funders, charities, public institutions, who have lately stepped up from ignoring us to saying that they don’t like biphobia and something should be done, take another step further and start spending money on it, that’s when we will know they have really started to take seriously all the challenges that as a movement we’ve been talking about since 1981.
Words can be very welcome and I’ve worked hard to get some of them said, but words are fairly cheap. Money says, “we are committing something to dealing with this issue”, and it says something about biphobia having a priority because spending cash has an associated impact. It’s saying “we are spending ten, fifty, two hundred thousand, whatever, on this – and in consequence we are not spending it on something else that also matters to us.” Money says this is real, these harms biphobia does are real, these needs bi people have are real, and because they are real we need to act.
So money, not because spending money is exciting but because it carries a lot of implied value to bi work and to tackling biphobia and the isolation bi people so often experience. Value that when we were just “half-gays” we never had.
And of course that the next generation get to listen to the rambly anecdotes of the last lot, because we sure have a lot of them. Get me a cider and I’ll start by telling you about a demo we had in 1996…
With thanks to Neil for talking Jen into letting this go into print.
You can find things she does on www.jenyockney.com
This article originally appeared in BCN issue 141 – February 2017.
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