The past few years have seen an unprecedented attack on the trans community in the UK. The British press have monstered transgender people, the High Court has stripped away vital youth healthcare and the Tories have weaponised the fundamental human rights of trans people into a culture war talking point.
It’s no surprise that many trans people have had enough. Grassroots trans-led organisation We Exist have created the first Trans Day of Joy as an antidote to the depressing headlines, working with Dalston Superstore and Fringe! Queer Film and Arts Fest to put on a virtual festival of performances, films and DJ sets, featuring UK queer royalty like Drag Race’s Bimini Bon Boulash, Travis Alabanza and Crystal Rasmussen. All proceeds go towards a fund for trans people in need of lifesaving surgeries and hormone treatment across the UK.
To mark the occasion on Saturday, VICE asked five trans* writers, performers and organisers from the We Exist event – Mandla Rae, biogal_, Donna Marcus, June Bellebono and Vixx – to share what trans joy means to them.
Donna Marcus (they/them): Should we start by sharing what trans joy means to us?
Mandla Rae (they/them): Gosh, it's so many different things. It's being in this virtual space with all of you, it's being called Mandla, it’s choosing my own name, being the person who I know I am, and existing in a way that makes sense, that feels right. It’s figuring out a way to live life with integrity. You know? That’s what trans joy is to me.
Biogal_ (she/they): To me, trans joy is innate. Transness is joy to me. I'm starting to revisualise my transness with metaphors, and the one that feels most apt at the moment is transness as an exhalation, a natural release of pressure. We're given all this shit, and it's tense. It's in our bodies, it's in our lungs. Transness is the moment where we give ourselves space and time to breathe. It can feel like just existing. That usually happens when I'm around other trans people. Because when you're around trans people, often transness isn't an issue or something that comes up, right? We're breathing. That's all we're doing.
June Bellebono (she/they): I love that so much! I actually hate that my mind went straight to validation when thinking of joy. I thought of when the nail lady used she/her pronouns when referring to me, and I'm not gonna lie, that was a very joyful moment. But validation from a cisgender woman shouldn't mean that much to me and it's annoying that it does. I need to unpack that. On a much bigger scale, trans joy is looking at transness as a heritage. There's such a rich Burmese transfeminine culture which is really amazing. In a country where homosexuality is illegal and trans people are not legally recognised, trans people still exist and thrive and have for centuries. It's been really beautiful to discover that history and connect to it.
Vixx, Biogal_ and Donna Marcus. All photos courtesy of subjects
Vixx (he/him): For me, trans joy is the fact that I feel privileged to be trans. I know I have to be careful because there are so many trans people that don't feel that way. But how many people get the insights into life that we do? Whether that be through soul searching, through society or just through our own instinct. I spent such a large chunk of my life as female. Now I’m living as male and have been for 10 years. I've been lucky enough to see both sides. The other thing is seeing other trans and nonbinary people find their own joy and discover their own beauty. As they go through their own journey, whether they medically transition or not, they are finding their own beauty in the same way that the caterpillar becomes a butterfly.
Biogal_: Yeah, seeing other people discover transness is a huge part of my trans joy. Recently the people I’m living with all consecutively came out as trans and nonbinary. It’s seeing people choose this life, because they saw how joyous it was, and that brought so much joy to me. People get a little bit cagey about the word “choice”. When we use the word choice to a cis audience that reads as inauthentic, right? But I actually think you can sort of choose to be trans.
Marcus: We can choose to be honest with ourselves, we can choose to be true to ourselves and we can be joyful in that. We can choose to prioritise our own joy over repression and oppression.
Vixx: I have actually written a piece of fiction that posits trans people and nonbinary people as an evolutionary leap. We're kind of the end result.
Marcus: I really love the idea that transness is a form of evolution.
Vixx: Who’s to say we're not?
Marcus: Exactly! There's all this rhetoric at the moment where people say “everyone's trans these days” - and you know, what? Maybe we're just moving forward and being more critical of the world around us.
Biogal_: That it’s evolutionary as well posits the fact it's got a past. It’s been developing in our cellular biology, if you will, for generations and generations.
Vixx: A friend of mine was doing a historical timeline of transness. And she went as far back as 6 BC, which would be around the same time as Sappho. We've been here forever, nobody just really paid any attention.
Rae: This connects to the gender binary being created and used during colonialism, and literally enforcing all these values and ways of being to destroy ways of life that weren't “civilised”.
Bellebono: Because transness has been suppressed for so long, I feel like archiving transness in itself is also trans joy.
Vixx: I'm archiving a load of books at the moment. Most are no longer in print. I'm gonna keep those until such time as I need to pass them on. I eventually want to find somewhere where they will be viewed and looked at and used as historical pieces. People need to see them.
Marcus: And in the process of archiving ourselves, we are affirming ourselves within history. We're affirming people who are beyond our circle, and beyond our time and space. We’re taking care to create trans legacy. We have such a long history of being, which has been erased by history, and to stand joyfully and loudly, to say “Hey, we're here” I think is really important.
Rae: Just thinking about affirmation, I was thinking about what you were saying on being gender affirmed, and other people affirming you. It popped into my head the first time I saw the word agender and I was just like, “There's a word for it? Oh. I like that.”
Marcus: It’s like gifting each other language to express ourselves, right?
Biogal_: It's beautiful to think about it as a gift. I've never really thought about it as that. We've given ourselves language and tools to understand each other and to understand ourselves. No one else is getting us those, so we have to do it ourselves.
Rae: I've been on this hunt to find words to describe queerness in my first language and ended up coming across these amazing women in South Africa who started this initiative where they're working with different communities and academics to make up and bring words to life. There's one word, serurubele, and its meaning is someone who is transformative, soft and fluid. I like thinking about definitions that aren't a diagnosis. Because I feel in order to be accepted as trans you have to be diagnosed and whatnot. But transness isn't something that I see as wrong with me or that I need to fix.
Vixx: Should we talk about specific moments of trans joy?
Biogal_: There’s this thing that I do quite regularly with my transmasc girlfriend. And it's a very COVID thing, because it's just us two in a room. They do a DJ set, while I get dolled up. So it's just us in our bedrooms. We don't do anything because it's, you know, corona, so we're not going anywhere. But there's something about that which feels like us like feeding into each other's gender euphoria and each other's joy. This is what humans are meant to be doing. We're meant to be making each other feel loved and lovely.
Bellebono: I feel like trans for trans love is so special and I'm so here for it. Last year me and partner were socially isolating and we’d FaceTime and do our makeup together on camera, mostly in silence. It just felt really special! I'm also going to share when me and Donna met. We were at this club full of the most basic cis gays that you can imagine in like grey t-shirts. Or no t-shirts at all. I was in the queue for the toilet and I just saw Donna fully glammed up, and I was wearing a little mini leather dress, and we looked at each other and pointed at each other and just hit it off?
Marcus: That was such a saviour. Seeing another trans person is like a glimpse of safety.
Rae: I remember meeting this trans woman I'd seen around town occasionally. She'd always remember who I was, and always use the right pronouns. She runs this trans arts organisation and she'd ask me to do something for it. I had this thing of "Oh, I'm not trans enough to be on stage in a trans space". I feel like her seeing me, knowing me, accepting me and encouraging me to take up space was really beautiful.
Biogal_: The idea of not being trans enough is something that really resonates with my experience when I was first coming to terms with my transness. I was really afraid there was going to be this sort of communal inquisition into whether or not I was trans enough? I believed what cis people told me that other trans women would not validate my womanhood. And I've found completely the opposite experience.
Bellebono: I have this friend who I used to work with who’s in her 40s and she's a trans woman. And years ago before I even mentioned anything, she asked me, “Do you see yourself as like a boy?” And I was like no. And she could tell that! It felt good. I love trans validation.
Rae: And much better than cis validation. I started doing this thing where I don't come out. I've stopped having conversations where I explain myself. If you don't get it, then you don't get it. I'm not gonna sit here and try and make you understand. The literature is out there.
Vixx: I guess for me, it's almost the opposite because people wouldn't necessarily look at me and go “Oh, yeah, you're a trans guy”. Generally my attitude is “You have no right to know what's between my legs, unless you're going to be in bed with me, but I will tell you that I am trans”.
Thirty-four years of living as a woman has got me to where I am today, because I've got the advantage of having all those skills. If I can use them to help other people come out or feel better, or to help them understand what life is like, then I will do this in whatever way I know how, to make things easier for people who are coming up behind me. Because the people ahead of me, people like Steven Wittle and Christine Burns, they did all their fighting for me to be able to come out as trans and to ease the way. Even now they're still doing that work. They're still fighting. And they'll probably keep fighting until the day they leave us. And I want to be along that line to make sure that people know there is somebody to listen to, there is somebody to help them, there is somebody to ease their path. Because I feel that might be what I'm here to do.
Marcus: That was really gorgeous.
Bellebono: Do you feel like the trans experience is a radical act?
Biogal_: I think transness has always been radical. And I think that it should be. I think the Tories are terrified of us. And I think they should be because we represent liberation. And I wish that fear was less influential, and I wish their hatred was less influential. I wish our love was more amplified. But do I wish that they weren't terrified of us? No, they should be scared of us. Because it's our joy. It's our transness that will tear them down. And we will do it. We're gonna tear them down.
Tickets to Trans Day of Joy are available on OutSavvy here.