Debbie Hayton Debbie Hayton

What happened when the mob came for Robert Webb?

Robert Webb (Getty images)

Robert Webb is best known for making people laugh, but he conducted himself with poise and grace when he was ambushed by American podcast host Jesse Thorn. Thorn had invited Webb and long-time collaborator David Mitchell to talk about their latest show, and their experiences performing together as a double act over the years. But the programme ended in yet another episode of the transgender inquisition.

This was personal. Thorn told listeners he has two gender non-conforming children, ‘one of who is transgender,’ as he called Webb to account for criticising gender charity Mermaids UK in December 2018.

Back then, Webb wrote a message of support for Times columnist Janice Turner, who had spoken out against ‘dangerous unscientific ideology’ after it emerged Mermaids had been awarded half a million pounds of lottery cash. 

It’s clear that Webb’s liberal credentials are impeccable. Yet for Thorn – who sounded uninterested in a nuanced debate on the subject – it wasn’t enough

‘I’ve talked to some really nice trans people here and they have my solidarity,’ wrote Webb, ‘but Mermaids sucks’.

The onslaught was predictable. Webb – who later deleted the tweet – later said those words had ‘real-life professional consequences’. But nonetheless he was clear he didn’t regret what he wrote: in a recent interview, he lamented the fact that ‘you can’t acknowledge that there are going to be competing interests here and there without that becoming, ‘You are a bigot.’’

For all the furious reaction from the mob, many people agreed with Webb. It wasn’t the first time Webb had been brave enough to enter the gender debate. In his 2017 memoir How Not To Be a Boy, he explored the absurd expectations thrust upon men and boys. In the words of one reviewer, ‘he also examines, with enormous poignancy and insight, the damage that can be done when young boys are encouraged to behave in ways supposedly befitting their gender’.

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