There’s a good chance you already have a strong opinion about Graham Linehan. Perhaps you think he’s a horrible bigot who hates trans people or a bit of a hero who campaigns for women’s rights. Perhaps you think he used to be a successful writer of sit-coms who went off the rails, and torpedoed his career and lost friends, and ruined his marriage. As I say: chances are you already have an opinion.

But let’s wait and see shall we. I’m about to talk to Linehan at his flat in London and because of the conflicting reputations he has, I have no idea how it’s going to go. Like JK Rowling, Linehan has become one of the most controversial contributors to the debate on trans issues and for a long time you were either unequivocally Team Linehan/Rowling or Team Trans.  But now it feels like there might be change in the air. One of Linehan’s fiercest critics, the writer John Boyne, apologised to him recently and, one by one, some people (including me) are starting to wonder if they’ve got things right. I’m no longer sure what I think about Linehan or what he’ll be like. 

 And here he is. He’s just been to the gym (bit of cardio, bit of weights, three times a week) and he’s all casual in a crumpled black T-shirt. Check out the logo on it though: “TEAM TERF.” TERF, as everyone surely knows by now, means Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist and it was the word trans activists used against opponents like Linehan which the opponents later reclaimed as a badge of honour. The thing is: Linehan says he can only wear the T-shirt round the house, in private.

 The reason, he says, is the abuse. Linehan, who’s 55, outlines some of it in his new book, Tough Crowd, a funny but dark memoir that goes from his childhood in Dublin (nerdy, bullied) to his days as a music journalist, to writing Father Ted and The IT Crowd, to getting involved in the trans argument. At one point he lists some of the things people have said about him. Tweets about dancing and pissing on his grave. The time he came home to find a note pinned to the letterbox: “Trans rights are human rights, f*** you.” The times he’s been called a Nazi and a Holocaust denier and other things.  And the time his career and marriage collapsed under the strain and people went online to mock him. It’s day after day, he says, every day.


The Herald: Father TedFather Ted (Image: Channel 4)
 I ask him how he is now and specifically how his anxiety is (when all the trans stuff kicked off, he became dependent on anti-anxiety medication).  “It’s better, much better,” he says. “I went to see a doctor this week and got some betablockers and I think they’ve been helping. But I don’t want to go back on the venlafax. I was on that family of drugs that includes sertraline and venlafaxine and they’re fine and they make everything OK but you’re too … ” he searches for the right word “ … I don’t know, too flat. So I’ve come off them.” 

 He says it also helps a bit that, despite the concern he still has about wearing TERF T-shirts in public and all the abuse, he’s starting to detect a bit of a shift out there. He talks about an incident in Edinburgh recently (Scotland will feature a lot in this story) when two hipsters he passed in the street gave him a friendly nod and he says that kind of thing is happening more and more.  It’s led him to believe that, away from the internet, most people do not really believe in the arguments of trans activists: that trans women are women, that you can self-identify, and that self-ID means you can enter women-only spaces. In other words, he thinks things are changing. 

 Linehan also thinks Scotland has been, and still is, at the heart of the change in other ways, good and bad.  He says, for example, that he’s been personally contacted by two rape survivors in Scotland who are self-excluding from rape crisis centres because of comments made by the trans-identified CEO of Rape Crisis Scotland, Mridul Wadhwa, who once suggested “bigoted” rape survivors should be re-educated about transgender rights.  He was also booked to play a standup gig at this year’s Fringe before two venues cancelled on him apparently because of his opinions and he ended up performing in the street outside Holyrood.

 I ask him if he has a theory on why Scotland has been central to all of this and was such an early adopter and promoter of the arguments for reform of trans rights, including the SNP’s gender recognition bill that’s now ended up in the courts.  Could it be that the Scottish Government embraced an opportunity to look better and more progressive than bad old Tory England?

 “Yes and I think the same dynamics are happening in Ireland too,” he says. “When the UK became known as a bastion for old-school feminism, by which I mean feminism that places women at the centre of it, Ireland started kicking off about it as well, and you’ll often find accusations of being a TERF are accompanied by anti-English, very ugly nationalism.” But the real problem with the anti-TERF thing, he says, isn’t nationalism, it’s misogyny. “It’s just one of those inbuilt, blood-deep things that some people have, like anti-Semitism, racism and homophobia, and what the internet has done is provided new ways of expressing it.”

But there is also good news on the Scottish front as far as Linehan is concerned; in fact, he thinks Scotland has provided the possible tipping point for change. He’s talking specifically about the case of Isla Bryson, the Scots-born male who started transitioning after being charged with rape and was remanded to a woman’s prison. The furore it caused led to a review of prison policy and arguably was one of the factors in the downfall of Nicola Sturgeon. 

 “Isla Bryson woke everyone up to what was going on,” says Linehan. “And I’m hoping people will look a bit further into it and realise that they’re suggesting that Isla Bryson, once he leaves prison, can go into any female space, which was what the fight was all about.” 

 We talk about that now infamous picture of Bryson in a blonde wig and tight leggings. “It was a pretty unequivocal picture,” says Linehan, “and it was very useful that he was wearing those leggings because a lot of people remain confused about this issue and are still thinking that when we say ‘trans woman’, we’re talking about a transsexual. But it’s over 80% of men who have a trans identity but retain all their equipment. It’s extremely high. And why wouldn’t it be if you can cross-dress and suddenly you have access to the women’s toilets and no-one seems to care?”

This seems like a good moment to bring up something I feel I need to talk to Linehan about: how he fights his campaign. You’ll have noticed he refers to Bryson as “he” and he tells me he does that with all men who identify as women for political reasons.  But I also want to ask him whether some of the things he says, and some of the ways he expresses himself, might be counterproductive. The use of the word “groomer” for example to describe some trans activists and supporters. Or telling people to “f*** off” in capitals online. He doesn’t hold back to put it mildly and I ask him whether, if he took a minute or two to think about it, he might sometimes not express himself the way he does.

 “Possibly,” he says. “I’m not saying you’re wrong but my argument is that what they’re doing to kids is a crime against humanity and the anger I feel should be shared by more people. I’m still one of the few people in my business that’s complaining about it.” 

 He also defends the use of the word groomer. “It came about because I saw all these women who were being attacked and their words were being dismissed by guys saying, ‘OK, boomer’ so I would reply to these guys ‘OK, groomer’. I think a whole movement that’s trying to keep children in a pre-pubescent state and is telling children they should probably divest themselves of their parents who hate them and want to stop them being the real them, I think that is a grooming movement.”

 Linehan does appear to regret using the word on some occasions though. “Yeah, sometimes I misuse it,” he says.  “I probably shouldn’t have said it about David Tennant. But he got me angry because he wore a T- shirt saying ‘leave trans kids alone you freaks’. And it’s like, why is he allowed to call us, who are trying to stop children being medically mutilated, ‘freaks’? Why is that allowed and yet I’m not allowed to point out that the use of the words ‘trans kids’ is making people think there is such a thing? Believe it or not, I’m holding back.”

 I ask him if some of his no-holds-barred approach – he is, in his own words, a big, stubborn Irish straight white male who doesn’t suffer fools gladly – is down to some of his early experiences: the fact he was bullied at school for example and he thinks there’s some truth in that. 
“I wasn’t able to fight back against them with I was a kid,” he says, “so yeah, when I got older, I would bully the bullies. I hate bullies.”

 He also seems to have a bit of a self-destructive streak when it comes to friendships; he says for example that he let his relationship with Arthur Mathews, the friend he wrote Father Ted with, wither through pointless neglect. I also ask him whether, as he got further and further into the trans debate, he ever had an instinct to protect the friendships he was losing over it. His answer is clear: “I wouldn’t pretend my personality has nothing to do with my current situation but all I did was remain consistent.”

 This is a pretty remarkable thing for Linehan to say considering the price he’s paid (and to be fair, there’s never a hint of self-pity from him). He says that he originally flew into the battle on the trans issue full of beans, but to his astonishment found no-one turned up to lend a hand. The more he talked about it, the more jobs also fell away to the point where virtually no-one in the media would return his calls.  He also says his plans for a musical version of Father Ted ended when the producers asked him to stop talking about the trans issue and he refused. And to top it all, his marriage broke down.

 Taken all together, this string of bad experiences over the last six years or so has shredded his nerves, he says, to the point where he now finds it almost impossible to completely relax.  But if you think that’s going to lead to a softening of his arguments, you’d be wrong. As far as he’s concerned, the idea of non-binary identities, fluid genders and being “born in the wrong body” is all nonsense and has led to a situation where “cosmetic self-harm” has been normalised. And what’s more, he says he doesn’t understand how faced with it all, people can be silent.

Linehan does make a point of emphasising to me that his problem is with trans activists rather than transsexuals. He says transsexuals suffer terribly because of a disconnect between how they see themselves and how the world sees them and that it’s impossible not to sympathise. But he also says he doesn’t want to live in a world where boys playing with dolls and girls who don’t like wearing pink are subjected to lifelong medical intervention. 

“Part of the problem is the word ‘trans’,” he says. “We need to say: what does that mean? A young girl who’s 16 years old and is disturbed possibly by her developing body, which is a very common thing for young girls and in the past that distress has taken the form of anorexia. But now it’s taking the form of this extreme body harm. Now, is she a trans person? I don’t think she is. I think she’s a young girl in distress.” Linehan is a father and in his book he writes: “I have a daughter. My first responsibility is to keep her safe.”

 “I guess what I’m saying,” he adds now, “is that an operation that should always and has always been seen as a complete last-ditch attempt to cure a mental problem is now being seen as the first stop along the road for a lot of kids. I worry that the promotion of transgenderism is making these operations much more attractive to kids and I don’t see anything more evil than that.”

 On a more positive note, he does believe there’s change afoot; in a small way for him and a bigger way for society as a whole. He says he won’t be making more television any time soon because no actor would do any of his scripts (even the ones who like him).  He also says even if he could get started on the Father Ted musical tomorrow, it would probably take a couple of years to get going. And so he’ll be focusing on writing books and has a new literary agent, and that’s all good as far as it goes. 

 As for his continuing involvement in the trans debate, he intends to carry on as before. People sometimes say to him, “Why do you care so much?” and his response is always: “Why do you not care?”  He also believes that the signs that gender identity has started to unravel are all around, including the imminent closure of the Tavistock gender clinic. 

 And Linehan, his battle scars still fresh, has a destination in mind. He says he once read that five years is the average length of time it takes for a period of madness to take hold and then burn away and he’s determined to see that process to the end.  People sometimes ask him “what’s your end game?” and he spells it out at the end of his book: “I want to reveal the havoc gender identity has wrought on society,” he says “expose those who enabled it and help bring about its end.” 

Tough Crowd by Graham Linehan, published by Eye Books at £19.99, is available at