Juliet Jacques Carves Out Her Own Space in 'Trans: A Memoir'
Juliet Jacques spoke to VICE about <i>Trans: A Memoir</i>, gender dysphoria, and being the writer she wants to be.
"If you articulate an outsider critique well enough, you stop being one," writes Juliet Jacques in her new book, Trans: A Memoir, which was released by Verso on September 22. The book documents Jacques's life, leading up to and after her gender reassignment surgery. The UK-based writer had already been writing on the subject for her popular Guardian column, Transgender Journey, where she detailed the process of transition as well as provided an appraisal of contemporary gender politics. Trans covers broader ground, delving into her own life and experiences to draw out a political and theoretical framework for understanding gender identities. Jacques, who studied film and history at school, uses film and literary references to frame an analysis of trans representations in pop culture and media. Short, essay-like interludes titled "A History of the Sex Change" and "Gender Outlaws: The Birth of Transgender Theory" help contextualize her deeply personal narrative within the larger history of trans lives.
Trans also paints a vivid picture of Jacques's time in the 90s punk music scenes in the UK and the state of British leftist politics. Jacques now lives in London, where she talked to VICE about her new book, the bureaucracy of gender reassignment surgery, and why she felt excluded from the feminist movement for a very long time.
VICE: Why did you decide to turn the Guardian series into a book?
Juliet Jacques: The Guardian column got commissioned in the summer of 2009. It went better than I was expecting. They let me do it for longer than I expected and people responded to it much better than I had hoped. After that, I repeatedly got asked about turning it into a book. I always said, "I actually don't really want to." I don't really see an existential need for it. I felt there was a need for a blog, because there wasn't an obvious starting place for a young trans person. It wasn't like how it was when I was 10, when we didn't have the internet and we lived in a small town and there was no info anywhere and there was a government law, Section 28, saying you couldn't talk about these things in schools. By 2009, there was the opposite problem. There was so much stuff online. It was so decentralized, and I thought, God, if I was young, I'd be baffled. I thought about what I would want if I was 16 or 18 now. In the book, there are lots of allusions to much more interesting and left-field writers than me. But it's accessible. My dad's read it.
If it were just my journey, it would be pointless. What makes the book worthwhile, I think, are all those theoretical questions. What a lot of trans memoirs don't really do, or historically haven't done, is explore that space in between or outside male or female, and cover pre-transitional material. I just found it much more interesting.
Did you realize that the book would coincide with this rise in visibility of trans people, like Janet Mock and Laverne Cox?
No. I started doing the proposal in September 2012—three years ago now. It took ages to get commissioned. It got commissioned, I think, July 2013. By just some sort of weird fluke, it hit at the right time. In the five years since I started doing the Guardian series, things have changed so much. The book might just hit at the moment between there being an explosion of interest in trans and queer issues, and my perspective becoming irrelevant.
But, actually, a lot of outsiders aren't immersed in these issues. There hasn't been a really big transition narrative in the UK in a really long time. Janet Mock's book does the same thing that I'm trying to do, which is bring a lot of culture and theory and politics, and hook it onto a personal story. I thought [Redefining Realness] was really great.
There wasn't anybody for me. So I had to just carve out my own space, and I did that through writing.
In Trans, your transition seemed like a very bureaucratic process at some points. You detailed the number of forms you had to fill out and the government literature you had to read, and the interviews you had to do. What was your reason for depicting that side of transitioning?
I was working for the National Health Service (NHS) for years, all throughout the period of the transition, I was very familiar with those structures. I was working for a commissioning body, so everyday I was surrounded by this healthcare commissioning culture—talk of budgets, meetings where you discuss who's eligible for what sort of treatments, how it will be funded, and how it will be trammeled. So I was very, very aware of that stuff.
I also grew up reading a lot of Kafka, and a lot of these dystopian novels where people are just trying to navigate incomprehensible, impenetrable bureaucracies. They were a big influence in how I think and how I write. But the bureaucratic process of the NHS for the gender reassignment program, it was just a load of hoops to jump through, really. I wanted to bring in a sense of the everyday surrealism of that process, because it was so slow. My main memory of the transition was just waiting to have that opportunity to say the things I needed to say to make the thing that needed to happen, happen. But I hope I was generous enough to the medics, because they get a really bad rap—not always unfairly, but for the most part, they were medical professionals working within a system that they hadn't designed.
You did say, in the book, that when being interviewed by these medical professionals you knew what to say in order to get what you wanted...
There was a certain narrative that I felt I had to give to them. It was a very strange process. Trans people tend to be expert patients. We find our communities and we talk to people who've been through the system already. So, to a larger extent, you do kind of know what you have to say. It's very odd.
The emotional exhaustion you felt by it came through in your writing, especially the constant fear you had just going outside to get your groceries.
For the first couple of years, but particularly in the summer, there would just be this expectation that someone would hurl abuse, or worse, at me. After the first couple of years, I got the hormones, and physically, things became a bit easier. I felt a bit more comfortable with myself, had worked out how to comport myself in public to minimize the likelihood of abuse. I moved to London because I'm more anonymous here as well. It doesn't really happen now. But there's psychological residue, and it's pretty intense. I have a fair amount of passing privilege compared to some other people who have it a lot harder than I do.
One of the toughest things psychologically is trying to work out when things are coming from a place of ignorance or when they were genuinely malicious, and how you respond in every situation is slightly different. Some situations are just malicious, but if you respond in-kind, you're going to get a kicking. There are plenty of times when three blokes came along and just hurled transphobic abuse and/or objects at me. I was like, I could answer back to this but I'm not going to win. Of course, that becomes psychologically draining, because it makes you angry. When the anger has nowhere to go, it becomes depression. That becomes incorporated into your body language, and then you look kind of vulnerable and like an easy target, and that makes it worse. It took me a year or two to get out of that.
You were very intentional in your book about avoiding the "born in the wrong body" narrative. What do you think is the problem with that description?
It's not that I think that it's inaccurate, per se. There are plenty of people for whom it effectively conveys how they feel. My problem with it is that it's become a bit of a cliché. The sensation of gender dysphoria is very difficult to convey in the same way that, like, physical pain is very difficult to convey. Physical pain is at least localized.
Also, I'm of a generation where by the early 90s coverage of trans stuff in the mainstream media was still very bad. I was aware from quite an early age that the possibility of modifying my body existed. At that point, I felt it was social things that were stopping me from changing my body. I felt maybe we should put the focus on a transphobic society, and what institutions and attitudes and prejudices are governing what people are or aren't allowed to do with their bodies, rather than blaming the body itself. There was some deep, visceral physical sense that the body wasn't as I wanted it. But it's the idea of entrapment that I had a problem with.
The kind of written and verbal language that we have around this stuff is completely inadequate. Hence, the very heated arguments you see online about what terminology to use around identities and variance. I'm sure the language I use in this book will be very out of date very soon. The language doesn't cooperate with people's lived experiences yet. That's why I'm so interested in film and I write about film a lot in the book, because, obviously, the camera circumvents the need for language and circumvents the need for people to define themselves in concrete. It allows a lot more fluidity.
You say that there's as much transphobia on the left wing as there is on the right. In what ways did you feel left out of leftist or feminist movements?
You had a brand of feminism that explicitly excluded and undermined and attacked trans people. That's changing in academic and activist and more left-field circles, but it was still very prevalent in liberal-left mainstream media. The discourse on trans people, in the Guardian in particular, was really dominated by that perspective still. Because that was my entry point, I didn't really look into other forms of feminism. I'd looked into trans and queer writing, but I hadn't really connected them to feminism. I saw them as antagonistic streams rather than things that were sort of crossing in and out of each other and interacting with each other. Within radical queer spaces, I never felt that welcome either, because as a kind of femme trans woman, I was never made to feel like them. There wasn't anybody for me. So I had to just carve out my own space, and I did that through writing.
You talk about the tokenizing impulse of editors who only want you to write about LGBTQ issues. Do you still have that problem as a writer?
Not so much anymore. You know, my background was in writing about film and literature, and then I fell into writing about trans stuff and then found that people wanted that from me because that was what I was asked to do. I would say yes, because I needed to build a profile and needed the money, but also it felt politically important. It felt irresponsible to say 'no' to these things. At the time, I thought, if I don't do it, who will? I don't feel like that anymore, because there are a lot more people.
Just after I started doing the Guardian series, I just did loads of sports blogging, and I wrote about film again. And I did all of that, more or less, for free, because I just wanted to build up a profile in those spaces. That was a difficult option. The easier option would have been to be like, 'Oh yeah, trans rights, I'm doing that.' At first, it felt irresponsible to not write about trans issues when I had the platform. But then I thought, no. I hope it's showing young trans people that you can be in culture or in media and you don't have to be trammeled into doing this one thing. Your identity is you, but it's not all that you are.
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