Saturday, 25 January 2014

Interview with Juliet Jacques


Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honour to interview Juliet Jacques, an inspirational British journalist, critic, writer and columnist for The Guardian and The New Statesman. Hello Juliet!
Juliet: Hi.
Monika: Your acclaimed account of gender transition in the Guardian titled “My Transgender Journey” won much praise and recognition and allowed you to have your blog longlisted for the 2011 Orwell Prize. This success made you one of the transgender role models in the UK. How are you coping with the burden?
Juliet: It’s been strange. I had a socio-political purpose with the Transgender Journey series, but my background was as a literature and film critic, and my inspirations were post-war authors who wrote first-person novels that focused on the interior life of their protagonists – people like Nathalie Sarraute, Ann Quin, Rayner Heppenstall and Jean-Philippe Toussaint. I hadn’t expected people to call me “an activist” or “a role model”, terms which carry very different expectations and responsibilities to “writer”, which was how I saw myself.
I’d not thought enough about how this would intersect with the practice of writing about my physical and psychological life on a platform such as The Guardian, or how it might change my life, or the type of people it would bring into it. Combined with the other pressures of being precariously housed and employed during my twenties, this had a strong effect on my already shaky mental health, and I spent most of 2012 in psychotherapy, attempting to unravel this intertwining my public and private, professional and personal lives.
In response, I rethought which subjects I covered, and where, and spent most of 2013 repositioning myself. I wrote about trans issues where it felt necessary – the Julie Burchill debacle in the Observer, the Richard Littlejohn and Lucy Meadows story in the Daily Mail, and Chelsea Manning’s coming out – and otherwise sought to focus more on football, art, literature and film, sometimes with my transsexual past in the background, often not.
This was made easier by the fact that other trans people had established themselves in the British media, sharing some of the responsibility that I felt when the Guardian series was in full swing, in 2010-2011. I should say, too, that the backing of Trans Media Watch was vital – I wasn’t affiliated with them, but they provided invaluable advice when I wasn’t sure how to approach certain subjects.


Monika: It is inspiring to see the growing number of transgender women on The IoS Pink List, an annual Independent on Sunday Pink List of Britain’s most influential LGBT people. In 2013 you were ranked 60th …
Juliet: Yes, it’s good. Paris Lees was a worthy winner – she’s worked incredibly hard for a very long time – and I was pleased that Jennie Kermode and Helen Belcher from Trans Media Watch made the top twenty. I think their presence, and mine, reflects the recent community concerns with the way that transgender people have been treated by the British media. 
But there are people doing other work: Sarah Brown, who was the UK’s only openly transgender politician at the time; CN Lester, a musician who co-founded the Queer Youth Network; Natacha Kennedy, who’s particularly concerned with gender-variant children; and Roz Kaveney, an inspiration who still fearlessly challenges transphobia, especially from feminists or elsewhere on the left. In future, I’d like to see more representation for trans men and people of colour.
Monika: You are a journalist and critic. Is there anything like transgender literature? 
Juliet: The two main genres that openly trans writers have tended to work in have been autobiography and gender/feminist theory. These both have a recognisable lineage – I was intrigued by the former, as represented from Lili Elbe’s Man Into Woman (a weird text, written pseudonymously and edited by Niels Hoyer, also an assumed name) to April Ashley’s Odyssey, via Conundrum by Jan Morris and my favourite, Jayne County’s Man Enough to be a Woman. The latter inspired me more – Kate Bornstein, Leslie Feinberg, Viviane K. Namaste, Julia Serano and other authors who discussed transgender living on a more theoretical level.
As for fiction, drama and poetry, there’s a long list of people who weren’t trans – not openly, anyway – using trans characters, some more sensitively than others, to make their work seem more exotic or to illustrate some wider point about gender. This has been a relatively recent development – post-war, after Christine Jorgensen’s fame opened the discourse around transsexual and then transgender people.
My favourite was Cobra by Severo Sarduy, a playful avant-garde novel about a transvestite trying to reach a mythical Valley of the Dolls. Roland Barthes wrote The Pleasure of the Text about it, and how it disrupted all sorts of literary and social categories.
In future, I think we will see more transgender literature, as trans writers combine activist and creative work, or feel less need to write in a more directly political way. Roz Kaveney is one example of the former, but I don’t think we can speak of that kind of heritage yet.
At present, if there is a ‘transgender literature’, it’s of characters in texts that don’t focus primarily on them: Sarduy’s Cobra and Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckinridge, from the late 1960s/early 1970s, remain rare in making us protagonists.
Monika: What does it mean to be a transgender writer, poet or artist?
Juliet: Canadian author Sheila Heti says that “One good thing about being a woman is we haven’t too many examples yet of what a genius looks like. It could be me.” I think that’s even more true for trans women and men, as well as genderqueer people: we have an identifiable line of theorists but many of the foundations of trans/genderqueer culture are yet to be laid.
Most art of note comes from an outsider position and for various social reasons, trans/genderqueer people are often in that position, or have been in their formative periods. People are becoming more prepared to listen to our perspectives, so I think it’s an exciting time to be trans and creative – there’s a hidden history within queer culture for us to build upon, and a new type of art for us to create, that draws upon the increased confidence in our identities.
Monika: What do you think about the present situation of transgender women in the British society in general? 
Juliet: Certain legal rights have been secured, some with qualifications. People can transition via the National Health Service, getting hormones and sex reassignment surgery without having to pay, but the government are trying to abolish the NHS, and even if they don’t, there’s a constant fear that this gain will be lost – the media are constantly lying about the costs to the taxpayer in a bid to turn public opinion against it.
Employers are not allowed to sack people for transitioning, and gender identity is a protected characteristic in the 2010 Equality Act, but workplaces can make life difficult in subtler ways, and the 2010 Equality Act explicitly draws on radical feminist attacks in stating that there are situations where it is permissible to exclude trans people from services or social settings.
There’s been a lot of focus on the media in the last few years, and that’s important, but there is a lot of work to do on the way harassment, intimidation and violence can make trans people feel unsafe at home, in public or at work; the need for more support and information services for families and friends of trans people, and for trans survivors of domestic violence; and for better education about trans issues in schools. Genuine progress has been made in the last 25 years but there’s still so far to go.


Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Juliet: The knowledge that I’d have to handle the responses of my friends, colleagues and strangers simultaneously. The hardest group to tell were my family – I think that the longer and more closely you’ve known someone, the harder it is to come out, as the stakes are so high, and the fear that they will disown you is overwhelming.
Monika: At that time of transition, did you have any transgender role models that you could follow?
Juliet: There were a few people who I liked – April Ashley or Jayne County – but my life was nothing like theirs. The theorists I read shaped my identity and how I saw it relating to my world, giving me a sense of shared cultural history, which helped. There was a transsexual woman in my day job who got on well enough with everyone, and who provided some support when I came out. She was a card-carrying Thatcherite, though, so it didn’t lead to a long-term friendship.
The people who excited me most were the ones I met through London’s performance art scene, and the Transfabulous festival in 2008, less than a year before I began to transition. I interviewed Pia Arber for Trespass magazine and thought her incredible: she refused to be a victim, although she’d experienced a lot of pain, and she was so intelligent, with a perspective and set of references unlike any I’d encountered before.
The Transfabulous performers were wonderful: so insightful and funny about how being trans complicated ‘everyday’ experiences, and opened new ones. Jason Barker’s piece about being a man and having periods was hilarious, and the way the Queer Belgrade artists discussed their lives was striking – Andjela Tomić and Josephine Wilson’s ten-minute talk about their journeys resonated, down to the statement that conforming to their assigned gender had been like “living in black and white” with their current lives feeling like they were in colour – I’d thought the exact same.
Jet Moon’s performances were warm, funny and smart and every time I met her afterwards, she was friendly, kind, open and nurturing – I felt so comfortable with her, and so inspired by her.
Monika: What is your general view on transgender stories or characters which have been featured in films, newspapers or books so far?
Juliet: I’ve written an awful lot about the difference between mainstream feature films with trans characters played by cis people, and how they often have to establish the character’s history by acting out a series of stereotypical vignettes, and queer underground films in which trans people play themselves, often with improvised scenes, in which they discuss their experiences in a far more genuine way – I often talk about Rosa von Praunheim’s City of Lost Souls (1983), my favourite example of this.
American mainstream films/TV shows are letting trans people play trans people more – I’ve not yet seen Harmony Santana in Gun Hill Road or Laverne Cox in Orange is the New Black, but it’s a positive development. I’ve not seen Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club, either, but I’m equally intrigued by how that role is constructed.
I’ve written even more about trans people in newspapers, with this New Statesman piece from last year being the most extensive. There is a long history of sensationalist coverage which hasn’t been left behind – Before and After photos, outing people, bringing up someone’s trans status when it isn’t relevant – and sympathetic coverage often frames people as victims, or uses outmoded or clichéd frameworks.
There have been some moves towards letting trans people speak for themselves, but it’s still quite limited – a handful of writers, mostly white trans women based in London – and needs to be more diverse in terms of race, gender identity and class.


Monika: You co-founded the Justin Campaign against homophobia in football, named after Justin Fashanu, the world’s first openly gay professional footballer who committed suicide. How did you get involved in the project?
Juliet: I was playing for the Brighton Bandits in the national Gay Football Supporters’ Network league. The ten year anniversary of Justin’s death was coming up and my team-mate, Jason Hall, noticed that nobody seemed to be talking about it, or the wider issue of homophobia in football.
At first it was just three of us – another player, Paul Windsor, tended to handle the financial and practical aspects of a campaign that tried to use art and entertainment to raise issues – and we also worked with a filmmaker, Ian McDonald.
I often speak at events with Football v Homophobia, which grew out of the Campaign, but I left both the team and the campaign when I began transition, and it took a more conventional path, working on initiatives with organisations such as the Football Association. I wrote more about the first year of the Campaign here.
Monika: You are a big football fan. Which club do you support?
Juliet: Norwich City. It was a nonsensical choice I made, aged ten – they played nowhere near where I lived, and nobody else I knew supported them. But I’ve stuck with them through plenty of highs and lows, and now I have a season ticket. There’s nothing I love more than going to the games, even when we’re struggling.
Monika: Are you active in politics? Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns? Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Juliet: Not in LGB&T organisations, although I do lots of work that I see as political, going into sixth form colleges and universities to talk about transgender living, or entering mainstream media discussions about the same. There are plenty of people working with politicians on various issues – marriage equality, the Conservatives’ attempts at online censorship which are going to affect a lot of young LGB&T people – but that’s a big commitment, and there are others far better suited to it than me.
Otherwise, I was involved in some anti-Fascist activism after the death of Lee Rigby in Woolwich and the resultant rise in English Defence League marches. I briefly joined a couple of left-wing parties in my 20s but felt like Groucho Marx, not wanting to belong to anything that would have me as a member.
As for transgender women in politics, they can make as much of a difference as anyone else working within the parliamentary system, although it can bring a great deal of transphobic abuse – I’m a huge admirer of Vladimir Luxuria in Italy, facing down members of the Mussolini family with such dignity and grace. I just love her style: fearless and tireless, with a fascinating background in film, cabaret and theatre.
Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Juliet: I’m not in love.
Monika: Do you like fashion? What kind of outfits do you usually wear? Any special fashion designs, colours or trends?
Juliet: I love fashion, but more in theory than in practice. My favourite styles are from the 1920s – the kind of wildly impractical clothes worn by Alla Nazimova in her film of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé (which cost $350,000 in 1922) or those designed by Aleksandra Exter for Aelita, Queen of Mars (1924), a movie about a Soviet colony on the moon. I tend to spend my money on books, films, music and football, and I absolutely detest shopping, especially for clothes, so my wardrobe tends towards the functional. Sadly.
Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Juliet: I’m doing it now! I’m writing a book for Verso based on the Transgender Journey series. But while the Guardian series focused very intensely on my gender, this will hopefully provide some broader insight into what it meant to go to school under a Conservative government and university under New Labour, amongst other things. I think I’m rather young to be writing my memoirs, but here we are.
Monika: Are you working on any new projects now?
Juliet: After the memoir, I want to write a wider history of transgender people and politics in the United Kingdom, but I also have a couple of plays and scripts planned. There is a film I’d like to make, which has nothing to do with trans issues, but it’s very ambitious and I fear it won’t happen.
Monika: My pen friend Gina Grahame wrote to me once that we should not limit our potential because of how we were born or by what we see other transsexual and transgender people doing. Our dreams should not end on an operating table; that’s where they begin. Would you agree?
Juliet: They begin long before, but don’t end there, and don’t always lead to or from there. Nor should they.
Monika: Juliet, thank you for the interview!

All the photos: courtesy of Juliet Jacques.
Done on 25 January 2014
© 2014 - Monika 

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