A Conversation with Juliet Jacques on Digital Trans Identities

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Between 2010 and 2012 journalist, writer and film critic Juliet Jacques documented her gender reassignment surgery online through a Guardian column titled ‘A Transgender Journey’. The series approached the realities of trans identities – navigating public spaces, mental health, speech therapy – and the process of the surgery itself – consultations, infection and lengthy bedbound recoveries- with an unflinching honesty that in its entity is an arresting documentation of our human identities rather than a mere gender specific one.

This year, Jacques published her autobiography Trans: A Memoir with Verso Books, providing a more in depth depiction of a trans woman’s life beyond the physical transitioning experiences and musings that played through the Guardian column. It’s an exploration into her person that belies gender and sexuality, though remains an authentic account of the experiences of identifying as trans.

Though we are akin to sharing our lives with unknown others through the internet, it takes a certain level of confidence to invite an audience for something as personal as gender reassignment surgery, particularly at a time when trans stories were unacknowledged and undervalued (Jacques herself said the column aimed to defy socialist, conservative and feminist transphobia of the moment). For Jacques, who came of age with the Internet, her changing identity is, quite literally, established online; an account of before, after and the often forgotten in-between, her journey to her true self is scribed on the World Wide Web. We met with Juliet to speak about her own regard for digital identities and how the internet continues to shape trans identities today.

 

What role do you think the Internet played in the establishment of your identity from when you were a child and then through your transition?

I grew up with Section 28 which was that conservative piece of legislation that banned public promotion of homosexuality, which in practice meant stifling any discussion of non hetero-sexual relationships or sex in schools and keeping that sort of material out of public libraries. So at first I started looking for discussions on gender identity on film, television and print media. I was able to find a few things late at night on BBC Two and Channel 4 but what really changed things was getting the internet around 1995, I would’ve been thirteen.

It was dial-up internet, very slow and tied up our phone lines. I could get on it every now and then to look up words like ‘transvestite’ and ‘transsexual’ and find people’s personal websites that circumvented the narratives I’d got from mainstream media that let people tell they’re own life stories and differing relations with family, friends, colleagues and public spaces. It was a more realistic, interesting, varied and in-depth suggestion of what cross-gender living might be like. It also led me to some physical spaces where I could meet people and explore my identity in public.

Then with The Guardian series, I’d managed to secure that space where I could get beyond the old one page transition stories that you’d get from print media that relied on a certain set of tropes such as ‘I realised as a child I was born in the wrong body’ and that framing of ‘I transitioned and here’s how it turned out’. That’s not to say that’s not truthful but I thought the conversation needed opening and expanding. We were able to do that through the internet.

 

You speak often about the concept of ‘space’, particularly an unlimited space, about the in-between. Like you say, print media is obsessed with the before and the after, like what’s evident with Caitlyn Jenner and her Vanity Fair cover. Your Guardian column dominated a space in mainstream media that been empty prior- the in-between, the process. Do you think that the Internet is providing visibility for more of this particular frame, or just a wider field in general?

Absolutely, you’re seeing a lot more of non-binary and gender queer identities breaking into the mainstream but then they become open to being satirised, like the recent trailer for Zoolander 2 which ridicules non-binary identities. However, we are seeing trans perspectives getting a lot more hearing. The transsexual blog that I did had its grounding in twenty years or so of online culture and underground theory and discussion, so does this current moment of wider ideas of trans becoming apparent. Again, its roots are from explorations within Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr.

 

Tumblr is interesting to me, it’s essentially a physical manifestation of our identities within an online space due to its scope for text, imagery, hyperlinks, dialogue and discussion in equilibrium. I’d say that my identity was established on Tumblr to an extent, I could access materials and conversations that weren’t visible to me in my offline world. However, like what we choose to share on Instagram and Facebook, there’s a level of performativity. These online spaces mask the realities of our offline ones.

One of your Guardian articles was titled ‘gender is a performance – for everyone, not just transsexuals’. To what extent has your personal life and work been imbued with a sense of performativity?

The Guardian series had to have a certain level of performativity with it otherwise you’d go insane, if you write about your life in that much detail in that big a platform you have to find some way of detaching yourself from it. Though everything in the Guardian series and in the book is true, taking that type of detachment from it was the only real way of dealing with it.

Facebook was interesting before I came out as trans because I could instrumentally build up signs that I was transgender or about to transition by changing my photo, changing my name and linking to certain articles to start up certain discussions. All of that functioned without me having to say outrightly ‘I am transgender, I am transitioning’.

 

What was the response to that?

Mostly indifference. I turned eighteen in the late nineties when indifference was the new tolerance. Mostly people weren’t that bothered until I had to say to people ‘yes, I am transsexual’ to make sure they understood it. Actually a lot of people had picked up on those signs a lot less than I was anticipating. However, real life always impinges; when my parents got Facebook I was like ‘fuck’ because they will ask ‘what’s going on here’?

 

We were speaking earlier about our ambivalent and problematic opinions of Twitter, its form, its increasing conflict and debates on the personal/public opinion. Why do you consider it problematic?

Twitter I joined quite reluctantly after I started doing the Guardian column. It seemed that all the journalists were on it and I’d be shooting myself in the foot to not be on it. I still feel the same way about it now, I really hate it. I find the whole thing so stressful. I worry about saying the wrong thing, sharing the wrong thing, increasingly there’s discussions about people not saying things when they should. For a couple of years it was quite interesting to me, especially the idea that I could talk to anybody. I could throw out half-formed thoughts and they’d come back to me in interesting ways but increasingly they just came back with hostility so I stopped.

However, despite putting in a lot of references to art or film or literature or sport in my Guardian series, I still very much got typecast as a trans writer and what twitter allowed me to do is to share old film articles I’d written or tweet about other things. Simultaneously performative and more realistic because actually it allowed me to build up my true identity.

 

Did Twitter ever provide you with a conversation where you felt you were able to aid someone seeking guidance or perspective?

I think the Guardian series did that a lot more because of the time length of it and the open comments section, particularly for people who were quite early in their transitions who’d say I helped them through a specific issue. Twitter’s character length always frustrated me. I don’t really enjoy having long conversations on twitter because I find the form too constricted, its quite intrusive.

 

Everyone else can see those conversations also.  

Yes. I got really obsessed with private conversations. I’d often tweet publically and then have this self-consciousness about it and ask ‘who is it for?’

 

The question of who is it for is something I wanted to ask you about more broadly, did you write for someone through the Guardian series and your book?

Yes, it was written for a very small audience that no longer exists which is my eighteen year old self. I thought if I was eighteen now, what would I want? I tried to reach some sort of position of what I want as an eighteen year old now and what I would’ve wanted as an eighteen year old in 1999/2000.

Also, with the journalism I was writing for the editors of those spaces to prove that if you give time and space to trans-identifying people talking about our issues, people will be interested and understand it. That was the biggest success of the Guardian series, the book is a more sustained attempt to bring a trans perspective to a non-trans audience but also to people in the beginnings of their transition.

 

‘Trans’ is a popular topic in fashion at the moment and there’s been debate on whether this means trans identities are being reduced to a trend, that it’s ignorant of the social injustice and hardships that trans-identifying men and women struggle with through the everyday. How do you feel about this?

It seems to be, yes. I feel very awkward about that. The fact that trans is breaking into the mainstream isn’t a bad thing but then who gets represented? Who speaks? How intersectional is the approach being taken with this? How genuine is the interest? How cynical or opportunistic is it? Will it last? How do we turn it into something sustained that leads to improve living standards for trans people and communities? It means that we cannot be complacent because there’s a lot more work to do.

Trans people aren’t going away and we’re not going to stop raising our voices. The fashion industry will move on because that’s what the fashion industry does and the role that trans people have within that remains to be seen.

Trans: A Memoir by Juliet Jacques can be bought from Verso Books here.

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