Rhyannon Styles on why society needs to make space for trans identities

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All trans people undertake an important personal journey but, over the past decade, society has been on a journey too. Rhyannon Styles shares her experience and speaks to others about being trans in 2019.

When I began my transition in 2012, trans people were rarely seen outside Soho nightclubs. Activists Paris Lees and Munroe Bergdorf weren’t winning awards or starring in mainstream advertising campaigns. A trans man hadn’t yet stepped foot in Albert Square, and Caitlyn Jenner hadn’t appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine. We weren’t in the public eye. We were almost invisible.

My name is Rhyannon Styles and I am a trans woman. Growing up in Staffordshire in the mid-Nineties, I didn’t fit the stereotypical idea of ‘boy’ no matter how hard I tried. My friends all thought I was gay and so did I. I didn’t have the vocabulary to say, “I’m trans.” Identifying as a gay man allowed me to hide ‘me’ for another decade. The notion of transitioning came late into my 20s, and with these growing pains came periods of crippling depression, substance abuse and suicidal thoughts. I knew I had to transition, but the consequences of making that move seemed huge.

Back then there were few role models to suggest what kind of life you could expect once you’d completed this mammoth journey. I had grown up in a generation before social media, where to be transgender was still considered an exotic fetish. Let’s not forget the 2004 reality TV show There’s Something About Miriam, where men competed to date a model with “a secret”, and then recoiled in horror when they realised Miriam was born with a penis. The message I internalised was that being transgender was a joke, a freak show and inherently wrong.

It wasn’t until I watched Channel 4’s groundbreaking documentary My Transsexual Summer in 2011 that I finally saw trans people I could relate to. Trans people who I could see myself becoming. Something clicked. I knew I could transition and I needed to do it now.

If you’re under the impression that being transgender is new, or just a fad, think again. The Gender Identity Clinic in Hammersmith, London, has been helping people struggling with their gender identity since 1966. Today, it’s one of the busiest in the country, with 201 referrals last December alone.

My first clinic appointment was shortly after my 30th birthday. I’ll never forget the intense atmosphere in the waiting room that day as I joined the many trans people all poised to change their lives forever. I remember one woman nervously grinding her six-inch heel into the carpet, an action that spoke volumes to me. The patent stiletto seemed a little OTT, but like me, she’d waited more than 12 months for her appointment and the anticipation was crippling.

It’s been seven years since that day, and I can hardly remember the person I used to be. I’m much happier as Rhyannon. In becoming a woman, I became a better version of myself. That’s not to say that life isn’t difficult at times – in some respects it’s harder – but this is how I’ve decided to live my life. I’m in a stable, long-term relationship, I’m finishing an MA in dance and I’ve written a book charting my journey, The New Girl: A Trans Girl Tells It Like It Is. These are all things I never thought possible. 

Rhyannon Styles. Image: Eivind Hansen
Rhyannon Styles. Image: Eivind Hansen

Luckily for me, I transitioned on the cusp of a major moment for trans visibility. Combined with the boom in social media, this means that trans people are more connected than ever before. Last summer, the government proposed reforming 2004’s Gender Recognition Act. This would allow for greater legal recognition of trans people’s identities and we’re waiting on the outcome. Paul Twocock, Stonewall’s director of policy, says 2019 is “the year where we could reach the tipping point of support; reforming the law and ending the daily discrimination that trans people face in our communities will follow from that.”

We have made progress in recent years, but I believe we have a long way to go. I want to know if widespread visibility means that transgender people will finally experience the equality and acceptance we deserve in 2019. Or do attention-grabbing headlines, statistics and TV debates create hostility and negativity towards an already marginalised group?

Take last year’s Genderquake: The Debate, in which Channel 4 invited Germaine Greer, Munroe Bergdorf and Caitlyn Jenner to discuss trans issues live on air. It was badly handled and left me feeling humiliated, exposed and ridiculous. Rather than endure more embarrassment, I walked out. If they couldn’t recognise my gender, they weren’t worthy of my custom. The Government Equalities Office reports that 67% of trans people have avoided being open about their gender identity for fear of a negative reaction from others.

Another worrying study found that 25% of trans people had experienced homelessness. These studies reveal that trans people are disproportionately suffering just because of who we are. For society to make serious strides forward for the welfare of trans people and stop this unnecessary suffering, then our basic human rights need to be the focus. The binary model of society that we currently live in does not have the nuance or the ability to recognise an alternative. We have to make space in society for trans identities and future feminist debates need to be inclusive of these pressing issues. Let’s make 2019 the year we all agree to do this.

To really understand the varied and intersectional problems faced by transgender people across the UK, I’ve invited four people to share their experiences. Because the more people who are aware of our stories, the better.

“I’ve experienced sexism as a woman – it’s infuriating”

Lucy. Issue 454
Lucy. Issue 454

Lucy, 23, is a customer service assistant. She lives in Warwick

As you work in the service industry, how have your interactions with your customers changed during the course of your transition?

When I first started transitioning, I was working in a bar. Customers were very uncomfortable around me and laughed about “the tranny” behind my back. I had several customers take one look at me and join a different queue to be served – it happened too often to be a coincidence.

Did you report this behaviour?

My boss told me to get a thicker skin. People never understand how hurtful it is when they ignore who I am and refer to me as “he” and “him”.

Did your new colleagues immediately accept you as Lucy or have their reactions changed over time?

I make a point of not telling colleagues I’m trans unless I feel safe around them. The colleagues I’ve told recently in my new job are around my age and they have reacted with either staggering indifference or they have been really supportive.

Have you experienced any sexism as a woman?

I get numerous comments on my appearance. One day I started work at 5am, so I couldn’t be bothered to apply make-up. “You don’t look as pretty without make-up,” a male colleague said. And although I’m a supervisor, new managers at the store have immediately approached my male colleagues and given them the instructions that I was supposed to get. It’s infuriating but I feel like there’s not much I could say against it while keeping my job.

Are you worried about the future for trans people or do you feel positive about change?

While the anti-trans voices in the media, in government and on Twitter seem deafeningly loud, as a community we are going to get through this. Just look at the gamer Harris Brewis (Hbomberguy on YouTube) managing to get more than £250,000 in donations from across the world to support the transgender youth charity Mermaids. It shows that hate never wins.

“I’m trans. I’m also disabled. But that’s not what defines me”

Jack. Issue 454
Jack. Issue 454

Jack, 20, is a student. He lives in Hampshire

What support have you had from friends and family since you came out as trans?

When I was 15, I asked friends to call me Jack and use “he” pronouns.

They were like, “That’s cool, let us know if that changes.” It hasn’t. I was incredibly relieved and lucky. My grandmother also gets my name and pronouns right consistently.

Does your disability [a connective tissue disorder which causes joint dislocation and chronic pain] impact on your life as a trans man?

I take medication to stop my periods, but that has a side effect of making my joints looser and prone to dislocation. To prevent a trans dysphoria period crisis, I have to make my joints worse. It’s a difficult balance. I choose my mental health over physical health.

Do people see you as trans or disabled first? Does that matter to you?

People see me as disabled first. When I go out with my partner, Drew, who is also trans and a wheelchair user, people stare. I guess it’s a spectacle seeing two disabled people out having a good time, much more than it is because we are both gender non- conforming. I used to be scared people would look at me because I was trans, but they stare anyway because I can’t walk properly. So I sit in my bright yellow wheelchair with a rainbow rucksack to give them something to look at.

Is this the best time in history to be trans?

There’s still a way to go. But there are ways to medically transition now. It’s becoming less socially stigmatised. The internet helped me to realise I was trans; these forums are important for knowing it’s not just you. Without them, I’d still feel all the dysphoria and I wouldn’t know how to fix it.

What’s the one thing you want people to understand about you?

That being trans is just one aspect of my identity. I’m also disabled, but that’s not what makes me ‘me’. I knit, I’m untidy, I make awful puns. I’m not just a trans person, a disabled person or even a disabled trans person. Those are just aspects of my identity that mean I sometimes navigate life differently.

“We may feel disempowered, but we are beacons of hope”

Grace. Issue 454
Grace. Issue 454

Grace, 29, is an artist, musician and model in Manchester

Does your home feel tolerant towards trans people?

I used to walk down the street like I had ownership of this city, but Manchester’s community

energy has given way to anger and fear since the Brexit referendum. There’s been a measurable increase in transphobic attacks in a city that once felt safe. The increasing homelessness crisis, the profound use of street drugs such as spice and the accelerated gentrification of the city centre has had a huge impact on our community.

Canal Street is known as a safe haven for the LGBTQ+ community. Is it inclusive for trans people?

Canal Street is by no means a safe space for trans people. It’s a hotbed for crime, excessive drug and alcohol abuse and predatory characters who seek out vulnerable people. The majority of people there are white, gay men who at best tolerate our presence. Every person I know has had negative experiences in the area – homophobia, transphobia, verbal attacks, sexual assaults… it is not a safe space for minorities within the LGBTQ+ community.

Do you think passing as a woman makes a big difference to the way you are treated?

I think the concept of passing is completely futile for trans people who will never be a binary man or woman. We are trans, we view the world from a completely different perspective. We’re conditioned to believe we are the problem but actually we are the answer. All humans are constantly in flux. Contentment comes from embracing that.

Are you worried about the future for trans people or do you feel positive about change?

I’m terrified. But one thing that does fuel me is the idea that you can’t change the whole world but you can change the world around you. As trans folk, we may feel disempowered by the world but we must remember that we’re beacons of hope. Live with love in your heart, focus on your community and don’t be afraid to be heard.

“Racism is directed at me differently now I’m seen as male”

Bam. Issue 454

Bam, 30, is transmasculine. He lives in Brighton

How did you feel when you realised racism is a different issue for men?

Racism isn’t new, but it is directed at me differently now. Automatically being followed around shops by security isn’t something I’ll get used to. It makes me feel mentally exhausted because I still have to educate people about the colour of my skin.

How is it different to before you transitioned?

The first thing people see is that I’m a black man. Now people will cling to their bags or cross the street to avoid me. Cisgender men now automatically treat me with respect.

Do you think this behaviour will change?

Wilful ignorance is a huge part of the problem and as long as people refuse to challenge themselves and others I have little hope for change. I’m slowly coming to terms with the fact that I will have to live a life that always includes phobia in some form.

Are you worried about the future for trans people or do you feel positive about change?

Due to anti-trans press coverage leading to the uprising of anti-trans groups and hate crimes, I feel more unsafe. According to the ‘Trans Studies, Trans Lives’ symposium at University College London, The Times published 323 anti-trans articles in 2018, and that’s just one news source. I’d love to tell you I have positive feelings about the future but I can’t.

For more information, go to NHS UK. For support, visit Transgender Support and Mermaids.

BRIE SAYS

It’s important to me that this issue includes a look at what it means to be trans in 2019 so that we can hear everyone’s stories.

Images: Eivind Hansen / supplied

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