‘A bunch of hoops to jump through'

Juliet Jacques, Trans: A Memoir

Verso, 288pp, £16.99, ISBN 9781781681644

reviewed by Claire Potter

‘I decided my name should be Juliet when I was ten,’ Juliet Jacques confessed in her inaugural blog post for the Guardian that inspired Trans: A Memoir. She then ‘swiftly buried’ this thought, one that lurked in the back of her mind and returned forcefully at 17. By day, Jacques didn’t stick out in her London suburb. She was an avid football fan and a good student as she privately explored who Juliet might be. On festive occasions when the rules of masculinity relaxed, an evolving Juliet – in make-up and a lovingly curated collection of women’s clothes – would briefly take the stage.

Leaving home for the University of Manchester in 1992, Juliet continued to explore who she might be, hampered by a lack of positive models for her transition. While there were a few famous transgender Americans, with the exception of travel writer Jan Morris, English gender outlaws were mostly figures of fun. This absence of serious conversation about who and what she might be left Jacques ping-ponging between possibilities – was she gay, transvestite, transsexual? Upon arrival at university, Jacques put on mascara and stepped out bravely to meet male roommates who viewed gender transgression as no big deal. ‘I wear foundation on my nose sometimes,’ gay, bearded Nathan volunteered. In Manchester, where British cultural – and eventually queer – studies would be incubated, Juliet was folded into a circle of artists, cultural critics and musicians.

‘This is how I got here,’ transgender memoirs promise; ‘you can too.’ Although she suffers from anxiety, depression, mockery and economic marginalisation throughout the story, Jacques also enjoyed the support of sympathetic friends, family, and employers. Mapping community as a counterweight to isolation, Jacques is simultaneously hyper-visible and invisible. Although she longs to melt into one of two genders, she also learns that gender is an imperfect and treacherous ideology. Occupied by a gender journey towards an authentic self, she is simultaneously frustrated in the task of finding her voice as an artist and a writer.

Memoirs are particularly valuable for the growing field of transgender history: each story has the potential to make transgender people more legible on their own terms, not as a medical phenomenon or public policy dilemma. In the United States, such ignorance has recently taken the form of cruel and incoherent ‘bathroom bills’ that consign transgender men and women to the washroom of a gender assigned at birth, and a scientific mythology that articulates trans bodies as inherently flawed. As Jacques writes, she never felt that she was trapped in the wrong body, but she did come to understand that she was ‘trapped in the wrong society.’

Nevertheless, some societies do better than others. In contrast to the United States, where trans health care remains difficult to access even with insurance, Jacques’ medical transition was provided and paid for by the government. Yet Great Britain’s National Health Service still devotes too few resources: transpeople may be paused between genders, and exposed to ongoing violence and discrimination, for up to two years. The larger cost of gender affirming surgery can also be onerous. But for her parents’ support, during her recovery Jacques would have been left homeless and impoverished because of job loss and delayed unemployment compensation.

Yet Juliet’s gender transition, and all the services leading up to it, was professional, respectful and free, even if the path to it had been long and lonely. Temporarily off her hormones prior to surgical transition, Jacques wept

‘for thirty years of feeling like an outsider, twenty years of knowing this to be related to my gender, ten years exploring it, three years of transition and two years of writing about it, with all their stresses and traumas simultaneously hurtling to the fore.’

The poignancy of lost histories, or histories that the author has never had the chance to live, is a common theme even among those, like Juliet, who are embraced by their families and friends. In the American television series Transparent, launched in 2015, the fictional sixty-something Moira mourns the girlhood she never had, idealising rituals that many women prefer to forget: menarche, or picking out her first brassiere with her mother. Jacques hits these notes, but tempered by the fact that, under the influence of feminism and art, the gender binary was giving way in the late 20th century. In 1990, American feminist philosopher Judith Butler brought the two together in Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity: gender, she argued, was not a thing one could be or have, but an imitative performance with no original.

At Manchester, and then in graduate study at the University of Sussex, Jacques immersed herself in cultural studies and queer theory, and in a queer indie rock scene where she could cultivate her femininity. Sharpening her critical intelligence was crucial to decoding the stories that made transpeople more visible, then punished them for it. Movies like The Crying Game (1992) taught that ‘transsexual people should not deceive anyone about who they were, but shouldn’t be open about it either.’

Emboldened by a warm circle of friends and a head full of theory, Jacques slowly began to see her gender as a creative challenge. ‘I hardly ever wore dresses or makeup at home, no longer feeling the need,’ she writes. ‘In public I was playing with my style, telling friends that the notion of "male" and "female" clothes was absurd. I didn’t challenge anyone who called me "madam," just smiling if they apologized.’

Like earlier memoirists, Jacques had no transgender community; unlike them, by the 1990s she could participate in queer cultures gathering on the Internet. By 2004, social media had created a space for public dialogue about her gender journey. Preparing to come out to her parents by writing them a letter, ‘No blank page had ever felt so terrifying,’ Juliet recalled. Instead, ‘I put it aside and opened Facebook. The site had helped me come out, as I’d changed my picture to one of me as Juliet before I’d even seen my GP, and my first name shortly after emailing everyone, letting me hint at what was happening without using the words “I’m transsexual.”’ She then gathers the strength to write her parents an email.

Internet tools allowed Juliet to tell her story on her own timetable. Decision made, after writing her parents, she emailed her nearest and dearest friends. “I’d love to say `I’ll still be the same person,’ she wrote, `But that isn’t quite true. I’ll have a new name, and my body will change.” She would be ‘calmer and happier,’ and she hoped to be ‘perceived and treated as I have always wished.’ Then, she writes, she ‘moved the cursor over the button, shut my eyes, pressed Send and then closed my laptop.’

Web 2.0 also opens the door to the career as a writer that Juliet longed for, and the possibility of leaving dead-end bureaucratic jobs behind her. Blogging about her transition for the Guardian gives her a platform, while Twitter consolidates a community of friends and supporters. Regaining consciousness after surgery, the first thing Juliet does is reach for her mobile device. During her rocky, painful, post-surgical recovery, ‘social media keeps me sane,’ she writes, ‘providing contact with friends, family and well-wishers at any time, saving dozens of energy-sapping conversations.’

Yet social media also makes Juliet vulnerable to enemies, particularly some on the radical feminists left known as ‘trans exclusive radical feminists,’ or TERFS, who have never accepted transgender people as women. Such encounters have, understandably, soured Jacques on feminism as a movement, even as she acknowledges the importance of feminist consciousness to her own politics and gender journey.

These trans culture wars, along with the ‘no platforming’ controversies that continue to roil British feminism, contribute to Jacques’ reluctance to tell her story as a triumph over forces of intolerance that do not seem to be diminishing. After an outbreak of anti-trans polemic at an American conference I co-convened, I told a transgender woman activist how miserable it made me not to have been able to contain it. ‘Don’t worry,’ she deadpanned. ‘In ten years they’ll all be dead.’

In the interview with Canadian writer Sheila Heti that concludes the book, Jacques reminds us that gender transition does not signal an end to struggle. But it can clarify things. Having always suffered from depression, she now realises that depression is part of who she is. Transitioning publicly on her Guardian blog allowed Jacques to blossom as a writer, but eliminated the possibility of inhabiting her womanhood in an uncomplicated way. ‘I’ve been built up as some sort of role model,’ she confessed to a counselor, ‘and now I’m terrified of putting a foot wrong.’ Gender transition, she notes, isn’t a ‘hero’s journey,’ it’s ‘a bunch of hoops to jump through while working in boring jobs.’

Jacques’ willingness, and even need, to speak and write, has drawn her, somewhat ambivalently, into the world of activism. She offers us the gift of this journey at the cost of having ‘transgender’ as a permanent modifier to the identity woman. Yet Trans also offers the alchemical possibility that a history not lived is also a history yet to be. Steering her into a shop on her first outing after surgery, Jacques’ mother calls a shop assistant over. ‘My daughter needs to buy a few bras,’ she announces. ‘Could you arrange a fitting for her?’

Claire Potter is professor of history at The New School, New York City.