"I'm the most hated man on the internet".

"Ranting" about trans issues has changed comedy writer Graham Linehan's life.

So I say to Graham Linehan: I hear you've been cancelled.

"Oh, I was cancelled long ago," he says, shrugging. "As soon as I started talking about this."

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By "this", the 52-year-old comedy writer - once best, and only, known as the co-creator of Father Ted, Black Books, The IT Crowd, Motherland and other venerable sitcoms - means the often toxic transgender debate.

By "talking", he's mainly referring to the "billions" of tweets he has sent over the last few years on the topic, leading to him becoming "the most hated man on the internet".

And by "cancelled", well, nobody is quite sure how to define the term du jour, but he could mean his recent permanent suspension from Twitter for what the company called "repeated violations of our rules ... against hateful conduct and platform manipulation"; losing various Left-wing friends over his views; the fact he hasn't written much comedy lately; or, more broadly, that he simply doesn't feel anybody will engage with him on trans matters.

We speak, at a distance, in the living room of his home in Norwich. On the shelves are a smattering of Baftas, a British Comedy Award and an Emmy - reminders of the old Linehan's unquestionable talent.

Family photos, including of his writer and producer wife, Helen, and their two children, line another. And on the sofa, backed into a corner and surrounded by cushions, is the new Linehan: mild-mannered but prone to irascible rants, entirely single-issue, not always totally coherent, and apparently "fighting for his life".

The hair is greying slightly, and bluntly trimmed in lockdown. He is, he says, "fitter than ever", regularly cycling rather than relying on the treadmill desk he used for years, but he's also on anti-anxiety medication.

"I recently kicked [it] but had to go back on, because when you get into the news, it is very stressful..."

It has been another week in which "cancel culture" has been under scrutiny, notably in the form of an open letter, published in American literary magazine Harper's, signed by dozens of public figures - among them J K Rowling, Margaret Atwood and Sir Salman Rushdie - warning that the spread of "censoriousness" is leading to "an intolerance of opposing views".

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Rowling, who said she was defending "open debate and freedom of thought and speech", has found herself vehemently criticised for her views on transgender rights, and has a firm supporter in Linehan.

His involvement in the debate began in 2008, when an episode of The IT Crowd featured jokes at the expense of a character who is trans. "I'm very proud of that episode - it's a joke. The problem is that these people are easily sent into a kind of beehive of anger," he says.

Linehan's Twitter comments have drawn widespread criticism. Photo / Getty Images
Linehan's Twitter comments have drawn widespread criticism. Photo / Getty Images

He looked into trans issues for years before becoming vocal about them on Twitter in 2017. At the time, he says, he was recovering from an operation to treat testicular cancer, dosed on morphine, and began "liking" tweets that questioned trans rights.

"They call it 'like-policing', I was liking tweets that said trans people have the same rights as everyone else, but that there are a few conflicts that need to be addressed - [but] immediately a composite picture of me was drawn."

As Linehan was getting a reputation, he began talking about it - and became what some view as an activist, others a keyboard warrior.

The "conflicts" he identified included whether the safety of women-only spaces could be compromised by a lack of clarity in law changes, the wide-ranging effects of gender dysphoria in teenagers, and the abuse women such as J K Rowling receive for raising similar concerns.

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The obvious question is just why he made it his issue?

"Once you're aware of the violent threats against women who speak out, I don't know how you can ignore it. I think if you're aware of that and ignore it, you're complicit," he says.

"I couldn't not do something."

However, the tone of Linehan's online writing was often knowingly provocative. Even today, he will deliberately use an incorrect pronoun or a trans person's "deadname" - the birth name of someone who has changed it - if he considers them a "bad actor" in the debate.

"The reason we get called 'toxic' is because while expressing these legitimate positions, we get called bigots. That wears you down. And I'm a comedy writer, not a diplomat. But if someone calls me a bigot, I'll give both barrels back."

Friends and former colleagues, in the generally progressive, Left-wing TV industry, began to distance themselves.

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"Some well-known people have contacted me privately saying they support me. Jonathan Ross put his money where his mouth is - he's been a rock throughout this."

Linehan's children, both at secondary school, are approaching the age at which they might take a view. Does he argue with them about it? "Not really. It's such a difficult subject that I try to keep it separate from everything else. They don't really engage with my Twitter activities."

Is Linehan just trolling? Photo / Getty Images
Is Linehan just trolling? Photo / Getty Images

Twitter became a bit of an obsession, it seems. Linehan regrets the volume of tweets, but not really the content. "I've been ranting about this for three years. I wasn't sending a billion tweets a day because I enjoyed it. I was sending a billion tweets a day because I was genuinely alarmed, like J K Rowling, at what was going on."

It was a tweet in response to the Women's Institute that got him thrown off the site. The WI had wished transgender members a happy Pride, and he replied: "Men aren't women tho." ("The one they got me on, I did by accident!" Linehan says, laughing.)

But given the great majority of trans people don't want a fight, they want respect, safety and acceptance; and given Linehan calls for sense and patience in this debate, I'm not entirely sure how posting "men aren't women tho" is anything other than trolling. It's hardly nuanced.

"No, but it's a building block of our reality that needs to be stable. We can't fight global warming deniers, Holocaust deniers, any of these people, if we're operating from a basis of unreason."

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I look up at the Baftas, and wonder if the old Linehan will ever return.

He plans to replace Twitter with writing comedy again, but has also set up camp on Facebook and YouTube. Surely he was happier before all of this? "Oh yeah, but it was a happiness born out of ignorance," he says.

"I'm writing a sitcom now. I genuinely think the fever has to break at some point. Things will prove us right. I think the people who fought us and said we were bigots, they'll quietly delete their woke tweets. And if I ever do go back to the Baftas, I'll hold my head up high."