On 17 June 2020, Studio Voltaire held an online in-conversation event with writer and filmmaker Juliet Jacques and CN Lester.
Juliet Jacques spoke to trans writer, musician and activist CN Lester (author of Trans Like Me) about the impact of Jacques’ A Transgender Journey, which began in The Guardian on 2 June 2010, and the current state of trans media representation in the UK ten years on. The conversation was followed by a Q&A.
The online event formed part of Studio Voltaire’s Desperate Living C-19 programme and was presented in partnership with Media Democracy Festival 2020 on Wednesday 17 June 2020.
References and resources
C. Riley Snorton, ‘Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity’. Minneapolis: Minnesota University of Minnesota Press, 2017.
Juliet Jacques, ’On the “dispute” between radical feminism and trans people’. NewStatesman, 6 August 2014. newstatesman.com/juliet-jacque
‘So Pretty’ (2019), dir. Jessie Jeffrey Dunn Rovinelli. New York/Paris: 100 Year Films in association with Les Films du Bal.
The term “paradigm shift” is attributed to *Thomas Kuhn, ’The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962/1970.
Ten years ago, Juliet Jacques began writing a blog for The Guardian entitled A Transgender Journey, which serialised the gender reassignment process for a mainstream British newspaper for the first time. The series soon found a following, running for more than two years between June 2010 and November 2012 and being longlisted for the Orwell Prize in 2011, as it became an important part of a wave of activism that aimed to improve media representation of trans and non-binary people, which had previously been largely hostile – not least in the nominally liberal Guardian. For a time, it looked like progress was being made, as trans writers and journalists secured platforms never before granted to them, using them to shift the conversation beyond ‘Trans 101’ and to talk to mass audiences about transphobia, trans healthcare, history, politics, art and culture in an unprecedented way.
After Time magazine’s famous ‘Transgender Tipping Point’ article of May 2014, things tipped back again. Liberal and conservative publications rescinded this access, allowing the discourse to be dominated by ‘gender critical’ voices who questioned the legitimacy of trans identities, argued against young trans people’s access to healthcare and sought to sideline this new wave of trans writers from prominent media outlets. In the late 2010s, this culminated in a Guardian editorial about the Gender Recognition Act that was publicly disowned by the paper’s own US branch, and preceded the planned consultation into reforming the Act being dropped. Since the 2019 general election, Liz Truss, the Conservative MP and Minister for Women and Equalities, has made several speeches suggesting that a roll-back of trans rights is on the cards, responding in part to the ‘concerns’ repeatedly raised in British mainstream media.
A decade after that Transgender Journey began, and five years after her book Trans: A Memoir – which itself reflected on her experiences in the media – was published, Juliet spoke to trans writer, musician and activist CN Lester (author of Trans Like Me) about the impact the series had, and the current state of trans media representation in the UK. They discussed how and why Juliet wrote the blog, how it got commissioned, how much the series and other approaches to media activism changed the culture at the Guardian and elsewhere, what’s got better and what’s got worse in the last ten years, and what they hope might happen in the 2020s.
About Juliet Jacques
Juliet Jacques (b. Redhill, 1981) is a writer and filmmaker. She has published two books, most recently Trans: A Memoir (Verso, 2015), which was runner-up in Polari LGBT Literary Salon’s First Book Award in 2016. Her short fiction, essays, journalism and criticism have appeared in numerous publications including The Guardian, New York Times, Granta, The London Review of Books, Sight & Sound, Art Review, Frieze, Wire, The Washington Post, Five Dials, The New Inquiry and elsewhere.
Her short films have screened in galleries and at festivals worldwide; she also hosts the political arts podcast/radio programme Suite (212) and teaches at the Royal College of Art and elsewhere. She featured on the Independent on Sunday Pink List between 2011 and 2015, and spoke at the PEN International Congress in 2014.
About CN Lester
CN Lester is a writer, musician, academic, and leading LGBTI activist. Co-founder of the UK’s first national queer youth organisation, they curate the trans art event Transpose for Barbican, and work internationally as a trans and feminist educator and speaker. Their work has featured on BBC Radio 3, BBC Radio 4, SBS, The Guardian, ABC, The Independent, Newsnight, and at Sydney Opera House.
A singer-songwriter and a classical performer, composer and researcher, CN specialises in early and modern music, particularly by women composers. Gigs/engagements include work at The Barbican, Southbank Centre, Snape Maltings, The Royal Exchange, Fluid Festival, Queer Prides throughout Europe, and art galleries/bars/recital halls/book and coffee shops/universities throughout the UK. They have released three independent, crowd-funded albums: “Ashes” (2012), “Aether” (2014) and “Come Home” (2017) – all available via iTunes, Amazon and Spotify.
“Trans Like Me” (Virago/Seal) is their first book, named as one of the three essential works on trans issues by The New York Times. With glowing reviews from The Times Literary Supplement and Publishers Weekly, “Trans Like Me” is a collection of essays on gender, society, history, and building better futures.