Juliet Jacques and Sheila Heti Talk About Writing, Feminism, and Life After Gender Reassignment Surgery
An excerpt from Jacques's new book, "Trans."
In June 2010, Juliet Jacques began writing for the Guardian, chronicling her experiences as a transgender woman as she got ready to undergo sex reassignment surgery. Her deeply personal column, "My Transgender Journey," lasted three years and was shortlisted for an Orwell Prize.
In the three years that have followed her last blog, Juliet has become a well known journalistic voice, writing across matters of identity, culture, and feminism, interweaving the personal and political.
Now, Juliet has published her first book, Trans: a memoir recounting her life from new university graduate to now as she navigates her changing identity and all that it means to be a trans woman, as well as an aspiring writer, today.
Here, VICE has reprinted an excerpt from the epilogue of Trans, in which Juliet is interviewed by author Sheila Heti about her book, feminism, and writing.
Sheila Heti: Why did you want to end the book with a conversation?
Juliet Jacques: I wanted to cover what happened after my final Gender Identity Clinic appointment in April 2013. And as so much of what has happened since then has had to do with my relationship to the media, I thought the format of this epilogue should be a magazine-style interview. Also, I wanted to explicitly mention a problem I had with the media—transition being portrayed like a mythical hero's journey. To me it didn't feel like that, rather a bunch of hoops to jump through while working in boring jobs.
After I finished the Guardian series, I felt so burnt out. I scaled back my social life and Internet presence, and my feelings about the transition changed. I became so angry about how long the Real Life Experience took, and how difficult it was. Writing this book, I arrived at a more nostalgic attitude about certain aspects of my life, particularly my pretransitional explorations of gender.
The narrative concludes on a deliberately flat note. People might have expected me to leave the clinic and jump in the air, and a film might have finished by freezing on that moment, but life just went on. What else could have happened, apart from me going back to the office and thinking: what now? It really was that anticlimactic. But while the transition had to close there, the book didn't. I thought this might be a way of showing that life didn't end at that point.
One of the most painful moments in the book is the suicide note you wrote, where you say you had tried to give life some meaning through writing, and that you hoped to leave the world a little better than when you found it. How much of that desire—to leave the world a better place—is in your mind when you're writing? Is there a way in which having that thought is helpful, but another way in which it's kind of oppressive?
If you thought like that about everything you did, you'd go insane—which, I suppose, I did. Sometimes I'll take on a commission thinking, If I do this, it'll buy me a few days to do what I love. Usually, this means short fiction. I worked for the NHS until last summer, and the fundamental principle there was: do no harm. I try to apply that to writing. Not every piece I write is going to contribute to a grand aim, but hopefully, enough of them do.
I wrote in the book about the anxieties of being a trans advocate, but a lot of it has been great. The thing I enjoyed the most came in 2013, where I was asked to speak to a sixthform Feminist and LGBT Society. The invitation came from my old college in Horsham. I had such a happy time there: I told a few people I was 'a cross-dresser' and felt comfortable experimenting a little (although later I met Ryan, whose experience of transitioning there was not positive). So it was wonderful to see how much things were improving, with these teenagers creating spaces for themselves.
If you'd told me in 1998 that one day I'd come back and speak to a society like that, which included trans people, I doubt I'd have even understood what you were describing. I had a beautiful afternoon, talking with them about their cultural references, gender politics, and ambitions. I got back in touch with several teachers. Perhaps they wondered what had happened to me. Because of my name change, they wouldn't have known.
It also felt so good because with the Guardian series, I was aiming at people like the 16- to 18-year-old me—people interested in language, gender, and politics—and trying to make those things accessible without talking down to them.
Elsewhere, speaking to the Bishkek Feminist Collective—all under thirty, I think—about the situation for trans people in Britain, they told me about how hard it is to get gender recognition or surgery in Kyrgyzstan. One of my favorite moments came when Selbi, translating between English and Russian, asked, "Did you respond to the Julie Burchill scandal?" I laughed—that Burchill piece was so noxious that it stank all the way to central Asia. I didn't think when I started that people in Kyrgyzstan would be invested in these arguments, but they are.
Did you ever feel any resentment about having to write this book? There are many places where you discuss the onus on trans people to convey their experiences and write autobiographically. Were there any points where you thought, Why do I have to do this?
Definitely. Having written my life story once already, I found it incredibly frustrating that if I wanted to be a literary writer and journalist, I had to cannibalize myself a second time before I could do anything else. Initially, I wanted to write a wider history of trans people in Britain, as well as short stories, but all I could get publishers to consider was a personal story. This became more annoying with my awareness that once the book came out, I'd be accused of overshadowing collective politics with a self-centered publication, and reinforcing stereotypes of trans people as individualistic.
Plenty of times I've wanted to write about other things, but trans writing has taken precedence—partly because I felt the need to do it, partly because other people seemed to feel I should use my platform to address our political problems, and partly because editors reach for the first name they associate with certain topics, and with trans topics, that's sometimes me. The way I've tried to handle it is to cover other subjects as much as possible, only returning to trans issues when I feel it's absolutely imperative.
I hope this book fulfills the same aims as my journalism on the subject—providing a better understanding of trans living, some sort of reference point. Every time I think there's no further need for this sort of writing, the situation changes. I thought after Burchill and Littlejohn, things were calming down, so why do I need to do this? Then the situation changed again—the transphobic radical feminist perspective pushed back into the mainstream and there was a need to create a weightier counter to that.
Can you talk about your relationship to radical feminism, and to feminism in general? Do you consider yourself a feminist? You wrote about Germaine Greer and a certain line of feminism that you say "hates" trans people.
I discovered transphobic feminism through the Guardian, after seeing one or two post-punk bands allude to Janice Raymond. To me, that was feminism. I hadn't read any theory besides Valerie Solanas or studied feminist politics. I could have done in Manchester and I wish I had now. Instead, I had this modernist/socialist background that was scornful of what it called "identity politics," a position I later saw as prejudiced in itself.
When I read Bornstein, Stone, and others, I thought of them as transgender theorists. I didn't connect them with feminism, even though they were responding to that discourse. I read them alone rather than through any sort of community, so that was how I framed things when I started writing around these issues—seeing trans and queer people on one side and feminism on the other. I knew nothing of third- or fourth-wave feminist efforts to integrate these sides, besides knowing a bit about Judith Butler, who I'd not yet read.
It was only when I joined Twitter that I got a following of people who identified as feminists and learned about transfeminism, cyber-feminism, and intersectionality. I had to give myself a crash course. If I hadn't, the articles probably wouldn't have worked.
Maybe because I spent my twenties feeling so excluded, I find the word "feminist" difficult to apply to myself. And perhaps after working through so much trans terminology, I'm fatigued with labels in general. But feminism has done a lot to shape my writing: A Transgender Journey was an attempt to counter socialist, conservative, and feminist transphobia at the same time.
You read something like The Transsexual Empire now and you really are floored by its depth of hatred. But in 1980, the US National Center for Health Care Technology commissioned Janice Raymond to write a paper about medical care for trans people to help them make evidence-based decisions on the efficacy of treatment. Her paper was very hostile to gender reassignment, and Medicare didn't fund hormones or surgery until May 2014. It resulted in thirty years of people not being able to access those services unless they were wealthy. In the book, I talk about Julie Bindel's piece about rape crisis centers, and about the time I was nearly sexually assaulted in 2012. The Equality Act of 2010 tries to secure certain trans rights, but also talks about conflicting needs—the example it uses are centers for survivors of rape or domestic violence being allowed to exclude trans women. That means we don't have anywhere to go that feels safe, especially given the coalition government's assault on services for LGBT people and women. I don't know what the right answer is, but I do wonder how that discussion might look if trans people hadn't been characterized as walking rapes, and if the people doing that hadn't had the ear of policy makers.
My tactic has been to acknowledge that there's no way around the fundamental problem with a certain brand of feminism refusing to accept our identities, so I try to appeal to an audience not immersed in those arguments, saying, "What's the fairest perspective on this?" It's an effort to make sure that trans perspectives on trans lives reach people in influential positions.
There's an interesting line in the book where you say, "If you articulate an outsider critique well enough, you stop being one." What's your relationship to being an insider or outsider after being embraced as a voice by people in the trans community, and politicians who invite you to their events and want you as a spokesperson?
I've felt like an outsider from an early age—first in my family, then at school, and in my home town, then at university, then in every job I've ever had. So a big problem came when I felt that considering myself an outsider wasn't tenable any more. There was this strange mixture of fascination and repulsion in going to places like the House of Commons. I've noticed that there are many ways I feel like an insider in terms of where I'm published, who I've met, and the opportunities I've had. But I sometimes still feel like an outsider within those circles, because my perspective and frame of reference make me feel like I don't fit in.
I think I'm through with those swanky liberal LGBT events now—I'm now far more selective about what I'll go to. But there's a great line in a Lydie Salvayre novel about the narrator's voluntary reclusion meaning that people don't invite her to things. Remaining an outsider while keeping your hand in physical and online communities enough to ensure you're not forgotten, and that you keep up with the discussion enough to remain relevant, is incredibly difficult.
First-person opinion journalism has exploded in the last five years, and there are so many people doing these sorts of pieces now that I can sustain regular slots in mainstream media outlets but I still feel relatively marginal just because I don't write that often, and when I do, it's not on the expected topics. Perhaps it's more important to keep questioning the power dynamics of the industry, and to make sure that what I write is sincere, not a performance, and done for the right reasons.
One of the motivations of your book seems to be to cut down this phrase—'trapped in the wrong body'—as a dominant way that people who don't know much about trans people think about them. You really demonstrate why it's not apt.
The conclusion that I and people like CN Lester reached at the same time was: what if we're not trapped in the wrong body but trapped in the wrong society? If I'd been allowed to transition in my early teens, then my adolescent and adult life would have been much easier. Kate Bornstein was questioning this phrase twenty years ago, but I still see it in mainstream media as a way to convey gender dysphoria. I understand why it exists as a shorthand, but never felt "trapped" by my body. I said in the Guardian that transitioning was about "re-launching the symbiotic relationship between my body and mind from a starting point that felt right." I stand by that.
There's so much in the book about struggling for money and taking low-paying jobs. There are two factors: one is being a writer, particularly one who writes online a lot, which isn't lucrative; the other is being trans and experiencing discrimination and this affecting your income. I wonder where you are in your relationship to making a living as a writer, especially with your growing audience.
Things haven't changed that much. Writing online is nowhere near as lucrative as some people think. When I was writing for the Guardian, a lot of the criticism seemed to spring from the assumption that every time I published something, it would add another story to my house, and that I was spending any spare money on getting wasted in the Groucho Club, which wasn't the case (with one exception).
One of the things I think the internet has done is make it less difficult for diverse voices to break in: I think the Guardian took a chance on me because I was cheap. Securing this representation is important, but I wouldn't recommend trying to make a career from blogging. Most people I know who do so for prominent publications have day jobs. There's another factor between my writing and my gender—my mental health. Some of my problems were attendant on my dysphoria, some not, but depression and anxiety were big barriers. You throw that in with my politics—opposed to everything from a radical left position—and it's not a recipe for a happy relationship with capitalism.
Near the end, you say, "It's weird being on an even keel, I sort of miss the chaos." Do you feel the chaos has passed?
The lack of stability that came with transition itself feels like it's resolved, although it has some effects on my employment prospects, since I couldn't focus on a career in my twenties like many people. If I go somewhere now, I don't feel being trans has to be a big issue, and I like it not to be. Getting misgendered or heckled in the street happens rarely; and in situations where I don't have to speak, hardly at all. Some days I feel good about where I am physically, others less so, but that's still not the same as gender dysphoria, with its all-consuming sense that my body and the way I was expected to behave because of it were fundamentally wrong. I feel less weighed down than I used to, but I'll always have a transsexual history. I've learned to be proud of that, though.
The media stuff remains a constant process of victory and defeat, so that still feels chaotic. I've been on the front line for five years and I want to move away from it. Psychologically it's been draining.
Withdrawing from social media, especially Twitter with its bitter arguments, has helped. I think it's terrible for writing. I can't think of anything less healthy for an author than being able to measure their audience down to the last digit, not just in general but for each piece. As someone who's devoted to shining a light on marginal culture, Twitter is a disaster. It was one thing to suspect no one was reading when I wrote for Filmwaves. It's quite another for Twitter to tell me that two people "favorited" my blog on Croatian artist Sanja Iveković.
There's such a compelling quality in the book where we have a sense of being with you through your days, so I thought I'd ask in closing: What was your day like yesterday?
What was my day like yesterday? I went back to my therapist for the first time in 18 months, partly to discuss the effect that writing the book had had on me, and what it was like to return to all the memories in it. Then I did a podcast where I talked about my relationship with the media, then went for a drink with friends in Leytonstone.
It seems like it was a nice day.
It was pleasant enough.
Juliet Jacques will be in conversation with novelist Chloe Aridjis about the cruxes of writing and identity and the problems of performance and confessional writing at the London Review Bookshop on September 29. Book tickets here.