Joanna Whitehead speaks to the inimitable activist Paris Lees about feminism, class and how trans rights are human rights
Paris Lees and Phyll Opoku-Gyimah are two women at the vanguard of human rights, representation and activism in the UK. In the unlikely event you’ve never heard of them, Paris is one of the highest profile trans women in the UK. She’s a writer, the first trans person to appear on BBC Question Time and an anti-bullying activist. Her memoir is due out later this year. Lady Phyll, as she’s also known, is a co-founder and Executive Director of UK Black Pride, a trustee of Stonewall and sits on the TUC race relations committee. In 2016, she was awarded an MBE in the New Year’s Honours list, which she turned down in protest of LGBT persecution by sodomy laws put in place by British imperialists. The pair are both undertaking incredible and vital work in the areas of race and LGBT rights, so to see them in conversation in the beautiful surrounds of London’s Bishopsgate Institute last month was an exciting prospect. It’s also worth noting that the Institute houses priceless collections under the categories of feminist and women’s history, LGBTQ history, protest and campaigning, labour and socialist history and co-operation. If you’re visiting London (or live here), you can take a tour of the archive. Check out their website for more info.
Paris and Lady Phyll’s exchange covered activism, the importance of recognising our privilege and using the platforms we have to elevate and include other marginalised groups and the vital role of allies. Phyll reiterated the value of marginalised groups working together: “We’re seeing with the trans community that they need solidarity and support. In all of this, we need to remember that your struggle needs to be my struggle. When we start breaking off into silos, that’s no good. How do we show unity and solidarity between the different communities we work outside of and within?”
A discussion ensued about recent media coverage relating to trans people. Paris said that she felt angry with some journalists due to the misinformation that was frequently disseminated, which ultimately confuses people. She noted that a minority of cynical people had used this to whip up hatred towards trans people, something she felt was very sad. She reminded attendees that we cannot make laws based on extreme examples, which are frequently wheeled out to “support” prejudicial arguments against trans people, stating: “We need to focus on facts, rather than people’s imagined fears.”
I caught up with Paris after the talk to find out more about her views on feminism, class and human rights.
As a proud feminist, it pains me to see feminism’s good name besmirched by TERFs or SWERFs keen to advance a restrictive and damaging agenda. What are your feelings on feminism? What does it mean to you and do you identify with it in any way?
I’ve oscillated quite wildly in my relationship to that word over the years, although not to what I believe is the correct interpretation of that word, which is fighting for the equality and equal rights of women. I’ve never moved away from my commitment to that.
As someone who was transitioning, I was thinking a lot about gender and questioning a lot of things that other people take for granted. As a result, I had quite an early awareness of feminism and it really wasn’t a fashionable thing to be a feminist when I was at college in Nottingham in the noughties – it’s only been in the last few years that it’s become fashionable to be a feminist.
One of my favourite quotes while I was at college was the Dale Spender one (“Feminism has fought no wars. It has killed no opponents …”) and I loved that. One of the horrible things about this anti-trans bigotry being dressed up as feminism is that it’s really spoiled that quote for me, because it’s no longer true. Some really horrible stuff has been done in the name of “feminism”. Harassment, bullying, getting people bullied out of workplaces and I think it’s really disgusting. I’ve always said that bigotry dressed up as religion is still bigotry and bigotry dressed up as feminism is still bigotry.
Most of the young feminists I know are intersectional and are incredibly shocked that this [transphobia and trans exclusion] is even a thing. It’s really easy to think that this represents all feminists – especially when the media bigs it up and presents it as trans people versus women – and it’s not! It’s a really small obsessive group of people that have got a real problem with trans people who are trying to say that because they’re women it’s OK to be horrible to people like me. It’s the most ludicrous thing to me. Most people are so shocked when you tell them about it.
The vitriol is so relentless. I think it can be easy to think that this minority are more significant than they are, when it seems to be more about who’s shouting the loudest.
People still tell me that I’m a misogynist and tweet me about an article I wrote about catcalls a few years ago called ‘I like catcalls. Does that make me a bad feminist?’. It was deliberately provocative and honestly? I probably wouldn’t write something in that way now. I was writing my Vice columns and they wanted me to be a bit cheeky and a bit provocative, but let’s not pretend that secretly I’m a man and I hate women. That is ridiculous. There were five or six other women’s voices in that article. I wasn’t condoning street harassment. I was saying: “Let’s have a conversation. Is it always harassment? How do we feel about a smile?”, but that has become twisted to: I’m a misogynist who condones street harassment and rape culture.
There are cisgender women who’ve written similar things and they’re not being constantly hounded for it. Go and look at the lyrics of Nicki Minaji or Madonna. You’re singled out as a trans woman. I’ve learnt a bit from that and there are certain things I don’t say now that my cisgender women friends would. It’s like we’ve got to be woker than your average woman. I don’t call people ‘twat’ anymore because that’ll get jumped on as gender violence. I go home at Christmas and stay in a house full of women – and they call people twats! I have a right to be just as stupid and prejudiced about gender as the rest of the population. I shouldn’t have to be this absolute expert … it’s like there are these really unrealistic expectations that I can’t put a foot wrong because I’m a trans woman, whereas a cis woman can come along and say, “Oh, it’s silly – women love wearing make-up!” and not get hounded for it. Recently, Jodie Marsh said, “Oh, I’m sick of feminists. They’ve got a chip on their shoulders”. She’s not being called a misogynist, she’s not gonna be hounded for it. Can you imagine if a trans woman had made a comment like that?! It’s an absolute double standard and it’s not fair.
I agree. You’re being held to impossible standards. It’s farcical.
I do think a bit more carefully about how I say things now and that’s ultimately a good thing. It’s just so ridiculous how easily things get twisted out of all proportion when you are trans.
It’s like when Laverne Cox was on the front cover of Time magazine. There were all these white feminists saying, “Why does she have to be inspirational in a dress? Wearing make-up?”. It’s like – have you actually looked at the magazine shelf?! Literally the one trans woman to make it on to the cover of a magazine for the first time ever and she gets slammed for looking stereotypically feminine. But, so is Dolly Parton. So is Cheryl Cole. So is Holly Willoughby. Trans women did not invent societal gender roles! We’re all complicit in it, to a certain extent. It seems so ludicrous and misguided to me that you would focus on trans people.
It’s like the all-women shortlist thing. They’re raising money to try and bar trans women. I think it’s disgusting that you can raise twenty thousand pounds at a time when women’s shelters are being shut due to cuts. Is that really how they think they’re going to get more women into parliament? It’s almost like blaming trans people for the fact that there aren’t enough women in parliament. That’s not our fault! By all means – let’s have a conversation about how we get more women into parliament, but targeting trans people is so ridiculous to me. Imagine if you’d put that twenty thousand pounds into a campaign to get a crèche in Westminster or something … I don’t know. There are lots of different things we could do to encourage women into parliament and take all this nastiness out of public life and public discourse, which puts a lot of women off wanting to have a public profile. It’s so upsetting.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that the number one pressing issue facing women in 2018 was telling trans women that they’re not real women. It blows my mind again and again. The amount of column inches that have been devoted to abusing trans people. The amount of energy and money! It’s like there are these endless resources to do this and yet there is no evidence that trans people are causing problems. If any of these people can give me a scrap of evidence about how the existence of trans people has directly impacted upon their lives. I can give you examples of how cis people have literally directly negatively impacted my life. I don’t know how I have directly impacted upon anyone else’s life. What have I done, who am I hurting?! I’m just sitting here in my house, a woman. What is the problem? It’s a constant source of bewilderment.
You recently tweeted about the trans visibility and representation at the Oscars, saying: “I’m so glad things are changing – we were never what other people said we were”. How positive do you feel about the current state of trans rights in the UK?
I feel as positive about trans rights in the UK as I feel about human rights in general. I believe that as long as there is a society that values human decency and human rights on some level, that trans people will get their rights within that system. As long as we have the rule of law and people that value decency and who speak out against bullying and persecution, we have to win. We are right. History has told us that the struggle from oppression to liberation is long and it’s hard fought and it’s not handed out on a plate and it’s met with resistance and backlash along the way but, here’s the thing: we’re not going to stop asking. I will never, ever stop asking for trans people to be treated with basic dignity. As long as we have our human rights in general, we will get there because we’re right! We’re on the right side of history. Evidence is on our side. There is no plausible argument to stop me from being me. I do feel positive.
On the other hand, I do think we need to be careful not to think, “Oh well, everything’s moving in the right direction, so everything’s fine”. Some women were given the right to vote a hundred years ago and yet, look at the situation for women now. We saw in the news recently that Claire Foy was paid less than Matt Smith in The Crown. That’s outrageous! In America, there are these great people like Obama and Oprah and Beyoncé – really successful, widely respected people – whose predecessors could never have envisaged that they would occupy that space in society, and yet black people there are being shot disproportionately by the police. Oppression can always rear its ugly head in new permutations. Prejudice is recalibrating itself all the time, so we always have to be vigilant and try and make sure that it doesn’t go too far and that we move towards a more just and fair world.
I still think that any kind of digression from binary gender expression is still very taboo in our society. To what extent do you think increased acceptance of trans people is conditional on their assimilation or ability to “pass”?
Absolutely. I think that people who don’t conform to gender norms probably face the most abuse because it’s visible and it’s very challenging for people who often want to put you in a very binary box of what you are.
I was a bit more genderqueer back in the day, when I was a teenager and I got loads of shit for it. I was abused and a target for violence and ridiculed in public and all the rest of it. After a point, you just think: “I don’t want to constantly battle society all the time”. I think when I did transition, I really wanted to pass. I can remember standing in Nottingham city centre with a friend who didn’t pass, before I transitioned, and these lads walked past and said, “Fucking tranny”. I can remember just thinking, “Oh, I can’t do this. The only way through is if I can pass.”
People sometimes say, “Oh, it’s not that bad these days”. If it was a cis man saying that I would say, “Why don’t you pick up a handbag and put on some lipstick and go for a walk down the road and see how you get on”. If you look gender non-conforming, you are often experiencing abuse pretty much every time you leave the house. My friend Travis Alabanza gets a lot of shit and I know a lot of other people who do.
That said, there are a lot of people who are OK with it. That’s not to say that we should be grateful for when it doesn’t happen but actually it’s a minority of people who spoil it, while a lot of people just let you get on with it. It only takes one or two to make life really unpleasant, to ruin your day, if not your week. I remember people saying to me early on in my transition, “Did you used to be a bloke?” or “You’re a tranny, you’re a man” or something like that and I wouldn’t want to leave the house for a fortnight. It was horrible; I felt humiliated.
I do think it’s beginning to change. Some real strides have been made such as getting rid of the “Ladies and gentlemen” announcement on the Underground, getting rid of gender on forms or creating gender neutral bathrooms. All of these things are just little things and they have to be done correctly. They don’t mean so much on their own, but when you put it all together, gender is made up of lots of little things. It’s made up of hair and names and pronouns and so much stuff! We could get rid of so much of it. Why do we have to have men’s and women’s shower gels? Things are gendered that were never gendered. I’m not saying you have to do away with all of it because gender can be fun and a game sometimes.
I do think we’re having a conversation about it now, whether it’s about marking 100 years since some women have been able to vote or about #MeToo and sexual harassment. I keep thinking it’s all going to blow over and we’ll stop talking about gender, but it’s not. We’re talking about how we feel as human beings on this planet: what are men, what are women, how do we treat each other, do we want it to be this way or do we want it to be different. It’s hard and it’s complicated, but we are having that conversation and I think it’s ultimately a good thing.
As a working-class woman, seeing you speak articulately and assuredly on Newsnight or Question Time has been incredibly inspiring and validating. How have you navigated such an elitist industry?
It’s so bizarre to me, because I’m from an ex-mining town that got shut down in the ‘80s and I find myself on Question Time, at the Oxford Union, I’m meeting Prince William and then I’m getting an honorary doctorate and now I’m in Vogue?! It’s so far removed from what I thought life was and what it could be for me.
I guess being gobby – having a voice and wanting to put it out there. Being trans has opened doors. There’s not many [trans] voices, so that’s helped me in a way. Would I, as a working class woman, have been on Question Time if I hadn’t been trans and writing about those issues? Maybe I wouldn’t. You could argue that if I hadn’t been trans I could have been much more successful in a different field. It’s hard to know, but what I do know is that this life wasn’t meant for me.
I don’t really meet people that come from my world. I remember when I first went to Broadcasting House – I think I’d done some Radio 4 thing – and everyone was speaking really funny and I just couldn’t put my finger on it. And, I remember walking out and going, “Oh! They’re the people! That’s what people sound like on the news! They’re the people that run everything! That’s middle-class; that’s what that sound is!” I honestly think the first middle class person I met was a client when I was an escort. Or, maybe university lecturers and kids at university and they were so exotic to me.
I feel like more of an outsider as a working-class person, than as a trans person in this industry. There are, of course, more working-class people working in the media than there are trans people. It does feel like that and I’m often the only working-class person in the room. It’s almost a bit of a Trojan horse; when people know that you’re trans, they only see you as trans and they’re like, “Oh, she’s that trans one” and then you get in and discover you’re different from them in another way as well and that they’re really posh and middle-class and you’re not. It’s like I’ve been invited in because they don’t know any posh or middle-class trans people, so I’m bringing that as well and it’s a really interesting dynamic.
It’s frustrating to me because I know so many talented people from back home or people who’ve moved down to London and had to move back because they can’t afford to be here who are incredibly talented and incredibly hardworking and they just can’t survive. They can’t get ahead because they haven’t got Mummy and Daddy paying for everything, helping them out with internships and all the rest of it and it’s really, really annoying. When you see mediocre people going quite far because they’ve had a classical education or whatever …
I’m actually very proud of where I’ve landed. I’m not exactly where I want to be, but I’ve done a lot, with not a lot. It annoys me that not everyone gets to reach their potential in this country and that you have to work ten times as hard and be ten times better than everyone else just to reach the same level. That absolutely drives me. It’s actually misogynistic pressure: that you have to be perfect, you have to be everything to everyone, at all times.
Class is the biggest prejudice in this country that we don’t talk about. I think a lot of black feminists feel really short-changed by mainstream feminism. Lots of women’s voices don’t get heard, working class women’s voices don’t get heard. When I speak to the women in my family about lots of issues … they’ve never heard of the New Statesman. They don’t know what the Fawcett Society is. It’s a very middle-class thing. I don’t know what the solution is. We never talk about that, about how working-class women feel short-changed and excluded from the conversation. Not all working-class women, obviously.
As a high-profile woman, how do you stay resilient in the face of the barrage of abuse that you’re subjected to?
Valium and Seroquel [she laughs]. I’m actually not on any medication at the moment. To be honest, I see a lot of other people in the public eye really engage with the abuse that they get and I’ve always been like, “No”. When it first started happening a few years ago, it really upset me for a few months and then I just had a conversation with myself.
You cannot be in the public eye and not have people abuse you. And, it’s horrible and it’s not something we should excuse. Look at the awful way that Leslie Jones was treated. That’s disgusting. We need to take a stand against that. But, generally, when people abuse me … I’m like titanium. It doesn’t mean anything to me. I just brush it off. Very occasionally it’ll get to me if I’m feeling run down or ill or something like that. I just accept that this is part and parcel of being a woman on the internet – putting out political ideas and selfies and all the rest of it – people are gonna hate it. I try not to get too sucked into online discourses because I have a lot of respect and validation in real life and that helps, that really helps. What’s frustrating is when people go after people who are highly vulnerable. If I had people harassing me like that when I was a student, it might have tipped me over the edge.
We recently celebrated International Women’s Day. Which women have inspired you?
Reni Eddo-Lodge has really inspired me. And Laverne Cox. They’re both women of colour and both spend a lot of time really thinking about how to communicate their message in a way that people can understand and connect with. I think that’s really admirable. Laverne has contributed so much to the conversation on race and gender in the states and it’s unfathomable. She’s got such popular mainstream appeal and has some really intelligent thinking and has changed my perception and thinking on a lot of things – and she’s made that mainstream.
It’s the same with Reni. She started a conversation. She got it out there, she’s all over the place, she’s doing sold-out events, Emma Watson’s reading her book … it’s good. It’s really classily done and elegant and she just laid it out – and she’s a working-class woman. She just did her book and set the agenda and she silenced a lot of people. I think she’s got real substance. She’s only 26 but she’s the real deal and I think she could go on to be a real heavyweight.
Laura Lee, the sex worker activist who died earlier this year. That was really, really sad. There are so few people in public life who’ve got a voice. On that note, Belle du Jour. Her being open about it [sex working] – I couldn’t name anyone else with a public profile who’d been open about it and she inspired me to come forward and be open about my experiences as well. Madonna is a hair inspiration.
What one message would you like readers to take away regarding trans rights?
I mean – if you’re not already convinced of trans rights and that people like me just want to get on with our lives like everybody else, for better or worse, I hope you will be. If you are, you need to show up. We need to call this stuff out. Linda Bellos advocated violence against trans women last year. Where was the outcry? We need to condemn that stuff. We need to challenge transphobic jokes. It’s not enough to say, “Oh, I love Germaine Greer – I mean I don’t agree with her statements.” Ask yourself: would you see this differently if the statement had been racist? Would you stand back if your friends were homophobic? Or anti-Jewish? Maybe you would. It happens and it’s very disappointing, but we have to start calling out all forms of prejudice, even ones that don’t affect us directly.
I think people need to decide where they stand on trans rights and come out vocally in support. More people are starting to do that now, because they see the injustice in it. We’re less than 1% of the population. For all the talk of a “trans lobby”, the truth is we don’t have any MPs. I think we have one high court judge. We don’t have royalty or pop stars or chat show hosts. It’s a couple of trans activists who’ve got their voices heard and a couple of people who’ve been lucky enough to have a bit of a public profile. We don’t have the equivalent of a Graham Norton or a Moira Stewart. We do not occupy positions of power, yet there was a very concerted right-wing campaign against us being led by certain newspapers with an agenda.
We need help – we can’t do this on our own. We need people to be real allies and show up in solidarity. And, it makes a difference to me and it makes a difference to the families that are dealing with this that have children. A lot of people who contact me are absolutely despairing at what is happening at the moment and the anti-trans backlash that we’re experiencing and it makes a difference when people come out in support of us. The morale boost it gives us is immeasurable. So, I would say please be vocal about your support for trans rights and please challenge people – invite them to question why they think what they think if you know people who hold anti-trans views. Just accept everyone for who they are. Love people for who they say they are.
The first picture in the text is a profile shot of Paris Lees speaking into a microphone onstage at last month’s Women’s March in London, taken by Elainea Emmott. Paris wears a purple beanie hat, a silver puffa jacket and black gloves. In the background, to her left and right, you can see packed crowds of Women’s March attendees, who are focussing on Paris.
The black and white picture in the middle of this piece are head shots of Paris Lees and Phyll Opoko-Gyimah. The image was a publicity shot used to promote their talk at Bishopsgate Institute last month. Paris is on the left-hand side and has long, fair hair. She is smiling and looking directly at the camera. The image on the right-hand side shows Phyll, who has short, black hair and wears a black top. She also wears a fabulous statement necklace and an earring in each ear.
The final picture (also the feature image) close to the bottom of this piece was also taken by Elainea Emmott at last month’s Women’s March in London. It shows the poet, Salena Godden, who has golden curls and wears hoop earrings, a black polo neck sweater and red lipstick, next to Paris, who wears a purple beanie, a black top and a silver puffa jacket, next to writer, Reni Eddo-Lodge, who wears glasses and a scarf wrapped around the front of her head and Dr Shola Mos-Shogbamimu, the organiser of the March, who wears a black coat and has braided hair on top of her head with a shaved undercut. They are all looking at the camera and smiling, despite the Arctic weather.