The UK has a reputation across the Atlantic as ‘terf island’ – and not just with trans people. Indeed, prejudice against us – and its institutional support – seems like a defining feature of UK culture. Many major British media outlets regularly choose us for their ‘two minutes of hate’ segments. It must drive clicks and ad sales nicely.
I try not to pay any attention. If I tune out the bigots, what I see and hear from the UK is the extensive contribution UK-based trans writers are making to Anglophone trans culture. As an Australian raised on a culture of colonial residues who has now lived in New York for 20 years, I see both US and UK culture from a slight angle of difference. I’m at home (and not) in both versions of the common language that divides us – although the textures of class, region, and the distinctive forms of British racism are perhaps more legible to me than to many Americans.
It seems inconceivable now, but Trans: A Memoir by Juliet Jacques started out as a series of columns in The Guardian. When it was published in 2015, I wasn’t quite ready to come out. It helped me get there. It was a different kind of transition memoir, about the grind of trying to make a living, the aesthetics of a certain strand of British music, and – most endearingly of all – football. Jacques set transsexuality into the rest of everyday life. Her next book, Variations, wove fictional stories into the margins of history, where all too often trans people show up only in police records or in the scandal sheets. One story imagines the panic the outing and conviction of Oscar Wilde might have spread through queer circles that hoped they would be protected by the bulwark of class.
It can be hard to locate queerness in the margins of British history, and even harder to locate traces of any Black queer, trans or femme presence. In her stunning debut novel Lote, Shola von Reinhold does not only that but creates an entire alternate aesthetic out of what modernism thought it had to suppress, which included the ornamental, the vernacular and the “primitive” (which more often than not was a code word for blackness). It’s a book about how queer and trans people develop survival strategies among elite bohemians in both modern and contemporary times.
Both Jacques and von Reinhold embroider on the rich history of British queerness, where sometimes transsexuality is hiding in plain sight, but more often comes to light when the police expose it to scorn and punishment. Trans people have always had to have survival strategies. These feature in many of the episodes of the One from the Vaults podcasts of UK-based Canadian trans historian Morgan M. Page. Each episode is careful to note the known facts of the trans lives Page chronicles, while also giving us the gossip and the legends. As with other kinds of marginalised people, sometimes legends are what help us endure.
I don’t make it to London very often, but I did happen to catch Emma Frankland’s We Dig! on one of my rare visits. It was one of the last shows at the OvalHouse Theatre. In this collaborative piece, a group of trans femmes dug a huge hole where the stage used to be. Trans people dig in order to hide from a hostile environment, but while digging excavate traces of trans lives from the past – including the trans-Atlantic past. It seems likely that OvalHouse hosted drag shows originating from New York in the seventies.
The cast of the performance I saw included Travis Alabanza, whose work I did not know at the time. During the Covid-19 lockdown, their play Overflow opened as an online production from Bush Theatre, with Reese Lyons playing its only character, Rosie. It is set in a club toilet, where Rosie hides from a transphobic mob. It’s a qualified celebration of washroom femme solidarity. Qualified because as Rosie recounts, in her vernacular accent, trans women are sometimes included in that solidarity and sometimes not.
The connections and differences between British and American transfemininity is a topic explored in Roz Kaveney’s Tiny Pieces of Skull. This pioneering trans novel was written in the 1980s but not published until many years later. Not that one could expect much better from the class-ridden, self-involved literary world of the time, in which the early scenes of the book are set. Annabelle, its central character, is a freshly-hatched trans woman who flees London for Chicago, where her plans fall through and she ends up as a sex worker. What Americans mistakenly believe to be her posh British accent becomes one of her tools for getting by. Annabelle has to learn how to embody trans womanhood and the American idea of Englishness all at the same time.
In more of a tragic than comic vein, Lauren John Joseph’s At Certain Points We Touch is the story of a bad love triangle, and also of three cities – London, New York, and Mexico City – where JJ the narrator retires to lick their wounds and tell the story. As with Lote, the main character is trans femme in some sense, but transness is just there, as a given, saturating the prose. The achievement of both books is that this doesn’t need explaining to a world organised in cis terms. Rather, the cis world in its entirety appears fresh when perceived in trans femme terms.
No matter how much the cis world decides to judge and hate us, our culture continues to endure and make sense of the world differently. One extraordinary example of this is Deep Wheel Orcadia by Harry Josephine Giles. It’s a science fiction novel written in verse in the dialect of Orkney off the northeastern coast of Scotland. What I love about this novel is Giles’ commitment to the culture of another margin other than transsexuality. A good deal of trans culture ends up being metropolitan, as that’s where we tend to gather. To imagine us in any and every dialect, to imagine us anywhere, everywhere, even in space, is a utopian gesture – a beautiful and necessary one.
The anti-trans tactics honed in the UK are now being inflicted on us in the US as well, more in a Christo-fascist than crypto-feminist language (although that turns out to be much the same sort of thing). One way or another, we will endure. We always have. I leave it to others to lead the political resistance to our suppression. What I’d rather work on is developing the variety and richness of our culture, so that our own signals might cut through the noise.
McKenzie Wark is the author of Raving (Duke University Press) and Love and Money, Sex and Death (out with Verso Books in September).