In praise of gender fluidity | Transgender experiences have become a great identity issue of our times and Juliet Jacques is a major chronicler of various kinds of trans-identification. At the Edinburgh International Book Festival, she discusses the powerful account of her life in Trans: A Memoir, as well as her campaign to overcome intolerance, even within the liberal and feminist media.
“[Music] was an arena of gender fluidity and diversity.”
We begin with music: it has a strong influence throughout. “I grew up with Section 28,” explains Juliet, calling for a boo for Section 28. It banned the promotion of homosexuality by any public body under Thatcher. It made it pretty much impossible to talk about anything outside of heteronormativity and cisgender views. “You were looking for inspiration and role models wherever you can find it.”
For her, it was music.
“It was an arena of gender fluidity and diversity,” she notes. Bowie is an obvious example. Then she found the Smiths, and learned a language: there was queer desire and genderplay in their songs. “What the Smiths did was point you towards other stuff – an underground counter-culture.”
Representation was really important, because “I didn’t know where to find any other narrative.” The trans narrative was that people were trapped in the wrong body. “I sort of felt that the reality felt more complicated. I didn’t feel trapped – I knew I could alter it.”
“I wanted to reach out to my eighteen year old self.”
Finding film was very interesting. “I found written language didn’t deal with this,” she explains. There were some physical aspects that go beyond sexuality. “Eddie Izzard was really helpful in breaking those down.” Here’s one example:
It’s not always improving, she views it as more one step forward, two steps back at times. The Guardian’s coverage had obviously improved, but then they made massive slip ups (Julie Burchill…) in the trans narrative. You have Priscilla: Queen of the Desert, which she felt was quite progressive in gender identity, and then you have League of Gentlemen and Bab’s Cabs. “Come on guys, you’re better than this,” she remembers thinking.
“I wanted to reach out to my eighteen year old self,” explains Juliet, returning to the book, and its structure. It’s a mix of her own story and essays. She wanted to showcase a trans narrative in a liveable way, but also offer stuff to read and watch and think about. “There wasn’t that starting point when I was younger,” she says, but now thanks to the internet there’s so much. People might wonder where they can begin.
Across the hour Juliet talks about the media’s fascination with surgery (before and after images and narratives), why she’s given up on Twitter (it was a really interesting experiment, but ultimately she felt drained and bored), and her love of football. She takes on the media, but not without addressing her own complicity in the mainstream media. It’s a thoughtful and interesting hour, and one that makes you head straight out, to the bookshop, to pick up a copy of Trans: A Memoir and dive straight in.