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Letters Lived Contributor: Juliet Jacques

Letters Lived Contributor: Juliet Jacques

Juliet Jacques is a British journalist who writes extensively on gender, sexuality, film, literature, and football. She writes regularly for publications such as The New Statesman, Verso, Cineaste, and The Guardian, where she started to gain a following while documenting her gender reassignment process for which she was longlisted for The Orwell Prize in 2011. We recently talked to Jacques about her background in activism, including her involvement in co-founding The Justin Campaign against homophobia in football. Even so, Jacques admits that she feels most comfortable with the title of writer.

"[The Campaign was] named after Justin Fashanu, then the only professional player ever to come out. By then I’d immersed myself in Situationist ideas and liked their approach of addressing political problems through radical culture, and in the first year with the Campaign, we focused a lot on art and ‘happenings’ that raised awareness of the challenges for LGBT football players and fans. The Campaign took a more conventional turn, working with governing bodies, politicians and activist groups, and I stepped aside, to concentrate on my transition.

Mostly, I get called an activist because of my Transgender Journey blog in The Guardian, and I feel awkward about this. It was a socially motivated intervention into British journalistic culture – more on that here, if you’re interested – but I saw it as a literary project more than a political one. I couldn’t have written it without reading trans theorists such as Kate Bornstein, Leslie Feinberg or Viviane Namaste, but I was inspired by post-war novelists who explored internal consciousness in fascinating ways: B. S. Johnson, Rayner Heppenstall and Ann Quin in Britain; Alain Robbe-Grillet, Marguerite Duras and Nathalie Sarraute in France.

The blog got a better reception than I anticipated, and I’d not expected people to call me ‘an activist’ for doing it, or for someone like Christine Burns, who worked hard for Press for Change in the 1990s and early 2000s, to describe me thus. I kept saying “I’m not an activist”, but that’s a loaded phrase: it’s not that I don’t care about the issues, more that considering me “an activist” for writing for a newspaper’s website obscures grass-roots or behind-the-scenes work that people do with politicians, media, schools and communities. As a result of the column, I’ve ended up doing some of that, usually through events held by LGB and/or T organisations, and my articles did change some minds and reach some influential people, but I’m a writer above all."

With a substantial archive of personal writing on struggles with identity, we asked Jacques how she decided what to say to her young, pre-transition self in her contribution for Letters Lived: Radical reflections, revolutionary paths.

"It ended up covering my emotional and intellectual journey from an isolated and alienated teenager in one of the most conservative parts of Britain to a writer on transgender living, politics and culture in my late twenties and early thirties. I’d spoken about this a lot, giving talks on it for LGBT History Month in 2012, so it came naturally. I tried to get a sense of my personality, then and now, focusing on continuity, as transition involved this feeling of disjunction, and the need to navigate social expectations for women in order to ‘pass’ whilst remaining true to myself.

In addition, I put in some of the things that I wish I’d known about in the 1990s, especially the wave of transgender theory in North America, and queer underground films by Pedro Almodóvar, Rosa von Praunheim and others. I also wrote about queer people and spaces that helped me bridge the gap between my teens and my thirties, and told myself to expect some disappointment with the conservatism of mainstream LGBT activism."

“Above all, the Internet is where you'll find the political queer and trans subcultures that, both theoretically and socially, first save and then reinvigorate your life.” - Juliet Jacques, Letters Lived. 

Jacques also talks about how crucial the beginning of the Internet was as a resource for trans youth looking to connect with like-minded individuals. We wanted to know which resources she finds most valuable for trans youth today that maybe weren’t as readily available when she was growing up.

"It’s not so much that things exist that weren’t there at all in my youth – more that they are far more visible, and it’s so much less intimidating, I imagine, for people to find each other. There are more obvious starting points now than there were in the 1990s – Gendered Intelligence, Facebook and Twitter, the Transsexual Road Map, maybe even some of my writing – and with broadband instead of dial-up, people with access can spend a lot more time going through the various resources and making sense of them."

"You think you’re gay, but you’re not sure; you struggle to recognize your gender and sexuality for what they are, and even when you do, you don’t have the words to describe them." - Juliet Jacques, Letters Lived.

Growing up in the UK during the 1990s, Jacques notes that she was drawn to writers in the United States who were coming up with radical critiques of transphobia and exploring new languages of expression and gender identities that helped Jacques better understand herself. We got her thoughts on trans activism in the UK versus North America and any crucial differences she notices.

"In the past, I thought North American trans activists were more focused on theory – finding ways to assert trans identities between the conservative demands of Gender Identity Clinics, who insisted that people conform to outdated stereotypes in order to access treatment, and the transphobic radical feminism of Janice Raymond, Mary Daly, Sheila Jeffreys and others, who attacked trans people for apparently conforming to outdated stereotypes. In Britain, activism seemed to be more pragmatic, concentrating on legal recognition of trans people’s identities, employment rights and access to sex reassignment services via the National Health Service.

But that said, we probably saw more US theory than engagement with social services and political institutions because it’s more internationally relevant. The Internet brought more of the latter to light, along with the battle against transphobia in LGB and feminist circles that British activists had fought for decades. In the 2000s, transphobic feminists controlled these debates in Britain’s liberal press, so these issues became more prominent, as trans people struggled to convince newspaper editors that they shouldn’t give platform to writers who aimed to mandate us out of existence. As in any such struggle, there are victories and defeats, and it’s not constant progress, but I think we’re winning that battle.

The next thing here is to improve the conduct of the tabloid press, which has been a huge issue since the phone-hacking scandal. Trans Media Watch have been fantastic, bravely submitting twice to the Leveson Inquiry about the humiliation, abuse and invasions of privacy routinely suffered by trans people at the hands of the Daily Mail, The Sun and other publications, despite knowing there would be a backlash."

Finally, Jacques talked to us about activism in the UK that has her excited, and some organizations she thinks we should definitely know about.

"I mentioned Gendered Intelligence, who do a lot of work with trans youth in London – my friends at Allsorts do the same thing in Brighton, and I think it’s wonderful that there are people bringing 13-25 year olds together and offering them some sense of community. In addition to Trans Media Watch, All About Trans do fantastic work in engaging with the media and striving for inclusion and more positive representation."

You can follow Juliet Jacques on Twitter and on her blog, At Home She's A Tourist. Jacques is currently working on a memoir and a volume of transgender history.