At heart, Juliet Jacques' transgender coming-out story is about what it's like to be an outsider.
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Trans (Verso) by Juliet Jacques
Juliet Jacques’ Trans: A Memoir is a transgender coming-out story. Here are all the hallmarks: self-hatred, depression, the shadow of threatened violence. Opening with an account of her sex reassignment surgery, Jacques takes us through her early cross-dressing years, isolation at university, the struggle to come to terms with herself as transgender, and how this impacts – both painfully and joyfully – on the rest of her life. At heart, Trans is about what it’s like to be an outsider, about the difficult interplay between gender variance and social acceptance.
Jacques’s series “A Transgender Journey”, published by the Guardian between 2010 and 2012, was one of the first instances of an openly trans writer being given a regular UK mainstream media platform to discuss these issues. As Jacques documents in the book, much media coverage is invariably exploitative, fixated on how weird it is to “change sex”, with polarised depictions of “before” and “after”. As she explains: “These images are sensationalist ... using the most typically masculine and feminine pictures for maximum effect.” But in one of the book’s many poignant episodes, Jacques stops to take stock of a photo from nearly ten years before. In it, she sees herself in a favoured 1920s-style dress, changed but unchanged, challenging the idea that trans experience is about a before and after: “As I’d promised my friends, I was still the same person – in fact, I felt more the same than ever.”
Perhaps the most important thing that Jacques does is to show that being trans doesn’t happen in isolation. She discusses shit work, mental health, unemployment, boredom, football, family, austerity and failure, the constant fear and reality of male violence: “He grabbed my face and kissed me ... ‘Are you a man or a girl ... can I stick my dick inside you?’” She explores the roots of her career as an arts writer with detailed accounts of formative cultural moments: from Ace Ventura to Ota Pavel. The memoir reveals her determination to create meaningful writing, to succeed as a writer on topics considered “niche”, without compromising her integrity.
But in a characteristically understated way Jacques is funny. I liked the bit, post-surgery, where, idly lying in bed, she rediscovers the joys of masturbation: “I realised: You’ve found your clitoris. And it works!” While screeds have been written about trans people’s genitals, our dysphoria, our pain and desire to change them, it’s rare to hear anything about the sexual pleasure they can hold.
Transgender life writing now has its own canon, beginning with Lili Elbe’s Man Into Woman, published in 1933. These were originally designed to titillate; pity porn for cisgender people. More recently trans authors have taken control over their output. Jacques relates her life as memoir, but only reluctantly so. The chronology is at times confusing. Jacques jumps between surgery, university, childhood, jobs, success in journalism, backwards and forwards. In some ways this suggests the mixed-up nature of memory, but at times it’s unclear where in her life we are.
You sense her wanting to break free of the constraints imposed by confession, to do something more experimental: she intersperses few brief theoretical sections – on the history of the “sex change”, the birth of transgender theory. Yet the trajectory of a stigmatised life is still the most commercially acceptable model we have for telling transgender stories. The public retains its fascination with “men who become women”. Trans men and genderqueer people, who reject conventional definitions, rarely feature.
In some ways Trans is a misfit memoir, one that will resonate with many other people who feel different – the geeks, freaks, goths. She dwells on club nights where she doesn’t fit in, drag queen bars she feels some affinity with but not enough. Having successfully reached a mainstream readership, it’s a meaningful step forward in how the “sex change story” is told, which expectations are lived up to and which cast aside. In making herself vulnerable, Jacques shows how likeable she is. At the end of the book I wanted to be her friend, and you will too.