Sunday, 2 November 2014

Interview with Alice Denny

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honour to interview Alice Denny, a British poet, and transgender activist from Brighton, England. Hello Alice!
Alice: Hello Monika, it’s a pleasure to meet you - so to speak.
Monika: Could you say a few words about yourself?
Alice: Well I came out and transitioned later in life than most, after bringing up a family. As such transition has given me a new lease in life, a new energy. It has presented some interesting issues with relationships. I Identify primarily as a woman, parent, poet etc and trans is more coincidental, a reference to my development that has little current relevance. Although in practice it has a big impact on the way I interact in the world and the world treats me.
Monika: Some time ago you attended a meeting in Prague, the Czech Republic. How important is networking for transgender activism?
Alice: I did Monika but I don’t think of myself as an activist as such; there are some fabulous activists and advocates out there. Meeting people from other areas and countries – from the next street even- is so important because it reminds us we are not alone, helps share experience and work to fight prejudice – which is considerable around the world.
I tend to speak from a personal point of view through poetry and hope it resonates with others. We filmed a couple of poems in Prague locations which I hope people will see and can relate to. One of them refers to Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” which really nails what it can feel like to be “other”. Plus we met a couple of really super Prague residents who Fox interviewed and filmed so look out for that.

Monika: You are living in Brighton that is famous for its openness towards transgender people …
Alice: Yes I moved here about 6 years ago, to be near my son and friends and for access to services essential to transition rather than to escape perceived prejudice. Brighton also has easy links to London where my Gender specialist practices.
Later I learned that although discrimination and hostility do exist here too, Brighton rightly prides itself as a welcoming, accepting and nurturing city. There are so many people here who work so hard to make the lives of others more comfortable. Also there are so many social and artistic avenues for self expression, it really can be a great place to develop your sense of identity and self worth, And gaining confidence.
Monika: In July 2014 you were a part of The Brighton Trans*formed Exhibition that tells the stories of 23 Brightonian trans, gender queer and intersex people through photography, audio and object installations…
Alice: Oh yes, well this was typical Brighton at it’s best. It was an honour and humbling to play a small part in Brighton Transformed. I am completely awed by the energy and commitment of people (not all trans but with a belief in human dignity) that drove this project along, placing Trans issues and trans lives to the forefront. It did so much to affirm our lives and experiences and the Brighton populace responded with warm generosity. It felt good. Really good.
Brighton "Transformed".
Photo by Sharon Kilgannon
(Alonglines Photography).
Monika: Could you name any other cultural or social initiatives organized by the transgender community in Brighton?
Alice: There are numerous important support groups here. I am on record ( several times) in citing my debt to The Clare Project which was my first port of call in Brighton. There is an LGBT switchboard -which also helped me enormously. The local city council have worked with switchboard and local trans people on establishing Trans equality within the city, improving services to meet the specific needs of trans people and making Brighton a more comfortable place to be.
And last year of course we had the first ever Transpride in Brighton, again as the result of fantastic hard work by a few dedicated and inspired people. It was a joyful coming together of the wide spectrum of those who identify as “trans”, their families, allies and casual attendees many of whom admitted to having had their eyes opened by the experience. It was magical and this year was even better. It segue’d with a series of Brighton transformed presentations- huge posters of trans people in shop windows and bars, huge projections of our images in the town centre. I don’t think I’ve ever been hugged by and hugged so many as on that day.
Monika: You are a poet. Where do you draw your inspirations from?
Alice: I guess from my own small inner world Monika, things that impinge on my life and move me. I hadn’t realised how many - though not a huge number - of my poems are directly or indirectly about the joys and difficulties of being a trans woman. Someone asked me the other day why I “Out” myself in my poetry but it’s not a question of deliberately outing myself (not that I would have too much choice anyway); it’s just “this is who I am”.
And anyway I went through a lot of s..t to get here so I want to celebrate how amazing it is to be a (trans) woman as well as confusing and emotionally painful at times. Some stem from my delight and relief at finally finding myself where I am - a woman, others are from my abhorrence of social injustice or the pain of personal injustice. And mostly about love and relationships I guess. All this is quite hard to express which is why I do the poems I guess. I hope this makes sense. I feel emotions very strongly and just need to express them.
Monika: What does it mean to be a transgender writer, poet or artist? Is there anything like a transgender art or literature?
Alice: Do you know, I haven’t a clue. I tend not to immerse myself in specifically transgender stuff. What I do believe is that when you transition, you do get this burst of energy and I for one feel I have this freedom (and necessity) to express myself artistically , emotionally and even socially. There are people in business and other walks of life (if they haven’t lost their jobs due to persecution) who become more energised and successful. I can’t explain it; it’s as if every nerve in your body is more alive. I’ve been more aware of what I think is the difference between men’s poetry and women’s but I won’t discuss that here because it probably doesn’t hold water.
At Transpride Brighton 2014. Photo by Sophie Moore.
Monika: What do you think about the present situation of transgender women in the British society?
Alice: Blimey, that is a big question. I was in Prague the other day, in a bar on my own writing poems and drinking beer at a table when I looked up and saw that someone had spotted me and the whisper was going round the clientele, they were giving me furtive looks and smiling in that knowing, disdainful way.
I realise you have to be careful not to read too much into these situations, not to feel embattled. I just smiled back and got on with my writing and drinking. It’s a while since that has happened in England. But it does happen-even in Brighton. And worse. You get the misogyny all women have to suffer - “plus.” I feel a very close affinity with women in general - and feminists who are working for freedom and equality for ALL women. Terfs are still a nasty reminder of small-mindedness but they will and are finding themselves marginalised.
Monika: At what age did you transition into woman yourself? Was it a difficult process? 
Alice: Yeh, it was hard- still is at times- but SO worth it. I was always a woman. I can say that because this feels so RIGHT.
Monika: At that time of your transition, did you have any transgender role models that you followed?
Alice: No 
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Alice: I think it was organising to tell my kids at the same time and then finding that someone had let the cat out of the bag to my daughter and she had been suffering in silence for weeks. Her pain and confusion was almost unbearable. It was as if I’d been lying to her and I feared my son would think he’d been kept out of the loop but in fact he was really understanding. The best laid plans eh?
There have been numerous other bad moments - just as there have for everyone. My brain has sort of muted the pain of rejections and humiliations. It’s not fair but you get through it. It will go on happening, it might happen tomorrow. There is a dilemma: how to work to end this for the next generation without dwelling on the negatives and letting them eat away at your soul. That’s why I like to get on with being a woman and poet - and anything that might earn me a few quid to pay off the costs of transition. Ha ha.

Monika: Could transgenderism be the new frontier for human rights?
Alice:Whoa! Transgenderism? Not a term I could relate to. A problem of translation I think but it sounds like a medical syndrome or a political movement. I think you could be right though. Transgender rights have to some extent become the civil rights issue in defining a compassionate society. Around the world LGBTQ rights are under threat; many countries have taken backward steps. Ts and Qs are more visible I guess so easier to single out for persecution. It is really unsettling to think that people who don't even know me would profess to hate me and even wish me dead which in many countries people are willing to act on.
Plus, even in “civilized” countries such as the UK those who ostensibly accept divergence in terms of LGB reserve a visceral spite for Transgender people-especially Trans women for some reason. The blokes do get a good deal of persecution too even so. And let’s not forget that all manner of vulnerable people are subject to prejudice abuse and persecution; disabled people, those with mental illness or learning disabilities. We all need to do our little bit to make a more compassionate and fairer world.
Monika: What do you think about transgender stories or characters which have been featured in films, newspapers or books so far?
Alice: Not much. Boys Don’t Cry was the last film to really touch me, watching it was a horribly traumatic experience, if you know what I mean, but so honest and moving. But I don’t seek out specifically “trans” films, actors or characters. I thought Hayley in Coronation Street (a British soap) was a wonderful character and I was not at all bothered that the actor wasn’t trans.
I felt that the public outpouring of compassion (I know, it’s only a telly program) when “Hayley” died was indicative of a great change in social perception and opinion - what some people have called” the Tipping Point” has been reached maybe, in the UK at least. Transgender people are still horribly misrepresented in the media though - in TV and Radio comedy especially. All the tired old cliches are trotted out . It’s not clever and it is NOT comedy.
Transformed projection on the evening of TransPride
Brighton 2014. Amazing day.
Also so-called feminists are continually allowed to voice blatant lies beneath the guise of feminist theory or science when the real purpose is to deny my right to exist and stir up antipathy. Newspapers too continue to focus on the transgender history of someone in the news when this is clearly totally irrelevant.
It is getting a little better steadily thanks to individuals and groups such as All About Trans who try to engage with editors and journalists in a constructive way to get the message across. I’ve tried to engage with the BBC about a couple of issues but they ignore me. Hah!
Monika: The transgender cause is usually manifested together with the other LGBT communities. Being the last letter in this abbreviation, is the transgender community able to promote its own cause within the LGBT group?
Alice: I’m not at all sure of this Monika. There are others so much better placed to speak. In Britain there is still a good deal of actual day to day prejudice within the LGB “community” which many of us have experienced. The ‘T” always seemed ignored or worse within Stonewall but Ruth Hunt has committed herself to changing this. But I am on shaky ground with any kind of politics.
Monika: Is there anyone in the British transgender society whose actions could be compared to what Harvey Milk was doing in the USA in the 60s and 70s for the gay activism?
Alice: I don’t know. There are some super people around but my FEELING is that "we" (whoever "we" are) are acting more as a community rather than single iconic heroes or heroines.
Monika: Are you active in politics? Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns? Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Alice: I guess we can. Paris Lees was on the panel or Question time (an important weekly political discussion panel on BBCTV) and really showed up the the vacuousness of some of the established members of the panel. I don’t do politics as such any more, since the Labour Party abandoned the working class and concentrated on illegal wars and their well-heeled friends. I joined protests against the Sochi Winter Olympics, wrote letters to Coca Cola, Putin, the IOC etc, recited at rallies. I think I have to concentrate on trying to say whatever I have to say through poems,concentrate on reaching more ears and hearts if I can.
Monika: Do you like fashion? What kind of outfits do you usually wear? Any special fashion designs, colours or trends?
Alice: Oh yes. Now you are talking. Not that I am any kind of style expert but I love clothes and clothes shopping. When I do a poetry gig I sometimes like to be introduced as “Campaigner for floral dresses” which kind of sums up my attitude to fashion-playful and fun. I’m a bit old or trends but I do really love pretty feminine dresses and skirts that swish on me but that’s not necessarily what attracts me in other women. Shoes are great too. I’m a confused feminist when it comes to clothes, make up and the rest. 
Reciting at a rally to support LGBT community in Russia.
Photo by Serena X Cheung.
Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Alice: It is a very touchy subject that comes out in my poems. It’s hard, problematic for trans women at the best of times. For me especially I think.
Some women tell me they are OK being alone; for me it is something I may just have to accept, though not without regret. I think I said all I possibly could in the last verse of a poem called “Time is Short” which Fox filmed me doing in Prague and should be on YouTube/Vimeo shortly. I think having someone special to love is a joy and a privilege.
Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Alice: Yes, But not because of the T thing but because my life has been so diverse, unusual in so many ways, It feels like a succession of different lives sometimes and always with this nagging need to be free. Last night I didn’t sleep because I had to write down a whole load of connected stuff that had finally started to make sense but there is so much more I need to understand. I used to work as a family therapist - among other things - and am fascinated by the way patterns are repeated and perpetuated through generations in families.
Monika: Are you working on any new projects now?
Alice: Well I am trying to get a book of poems together, that is going to be my priority really because I do feel the need to leave some small mark behind me, even if it’s not a full-blown boring memoir.
And I want to do more recitals and readings, Getting in front of an audience to say my words scares me witless but it is so satisfying-no, uplifting-when I think I have connected with people, I feel validated. And I do genuinely love people.
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender girls struggling with gender dysphoria?
Alice: I did say the other day “ Who the hell do I think I am to give anyone an advice” but one phrase that I cling to and would suggest to others is ‘Don’t be afraid and don’t be ashamed to make your own world” and for that I am indebted to Jill O’Sullivan of Sparrow and The Workshop, the song is “Father Look” if anyone wants to check it out on YouTube. I’ve shared it a few times on Facebook and may well do again once this interview is done. It’s fab.
Monika: Alice, thank you for the interview!
Alice: It has been a pleasure Monika. Thank you for asking me. And I hope I haven’t spouted too much tosh.

Main photo by Sharon Kilgannon.
Still taken during filming of the Lucky Tooth Film "Alice".

All the photos: courtesy of Alice Denny.
Done on 2 November 2014
© 2014 - Monika Kowalska

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