Growing Up Hated … Shona’s Story

Black Lives Matter, Discrimination, Growing Pains, Mental Health, Pansexuality

I’ve been hated for my skin colour, for my sexuality, for my mental health, things I can’t change. People are going to hate me whatever, so I might as well be who I am. I don’t care what people think anymore.”

Shona Van Hassen grew up around her uncle’s circus, sometimes travelling the country with this unique, ragtag community. She loved the life from the beginning, and would eventually become a stilt-walker and trapeze artist, before finding her niche as a fire-poi and burlesque dancer, as well as a Black Lives Matter activist. As a child, she was just soaking it all up: the colour, the costumes, the music and, most of all, the amazing people; including her mother—who ran away to London to become a punk and often performed as a clown in the circus—and those they lived with, from performers to prostitutes and dominatrixes. Her non-judgemental attitude now and the generous, open way that she lives her life, her experimental performance style, even her sexuality, are greatly influenced by this early exposure to truly original people living in the margins, but she has been even more profoundly shaped by the challenges that she has faced and the strength it has taken to overcome them.

As a tiny child she was a tomboy, always playing in the mud and climbing trees, so when people first started to call her dirty, she innocently thought this was what they meant. She had no idea that they were referring to her skin colour. “I remember a little girl coming up to me when I was maybe three or four, licking her finger and trying to rub my colour off,” she says. “Her mum pulled her away and said, ‘Sorry, she’s never seen a black person before. She thinks you’re dirty.’” She was so young that she was able to shrug it off, but it was racism within her own family that was the most damaging. “When I was born, my dad said, ‘She’s not mine.’ My mum had to literally explain race to him.” Her white dad had lucked out two years earlier with the birth of her sister, who was white-passing, with curly, blonde hair and green eyes. Shona looked more like her mother, although she didn’t know just how varied her ethnicity was until she sat her mum down when she was sixteen and asked, “Right, what am I?” Her mum drew her a diagram, unlocking the secrets of her blasian features. She was so different to her dad that the police stopped him in the street more than once when she was tiny to make sure he hadn’t stolen her.

“As soon as you start treating black people or LGBTQ people as equal, that’s when people get threatened that we’re taking power away from them. In a way we are because we’re taking their superiority and privilege away. It’s what happens when you’re conditioned to look down on people.”

When her grandma also started calling her dirty, she was still too young to understand why, but her subsequent acts of cruelty were undeniable. “I always had a split lip when I stayed with her,” she says. “She’d push me down the steps of the caravan. Wherever there were steps, I’d get pushed down them. No one really questioned it because I was always running around. And I’d lose weight because she would take the things I liked off my plate and give me less food or things I couldn’t eat. She wouldn’t let me have water when I was hot. I just thought she was cruel. It never really computed until I was much older what it was about. She’d make me have the first bath when it was stupidly hot, and I’d come out bright red, and then my sister would go in when it had cooled down. She’d tell me, ‘Yours is the kind of filth you can’t wash off.’” Eventually, Shona started faking sickness to get out of seeing her grandma and stopped going altogether when she was ten.

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The one person that treated the sisters equally was her mum, but this presented problems of its own. “Because my sister was conditioned to be better than me, by my dad and grandma, she didn’t understand how lucky she was. She’d say, ‘You’re Mum’s favourite.’ It’s like, ‘No, we’re just getting treated equally. You’re just not used to that.’ Which is what’s happening in the world. As soon as you start treating black people or LGBTQ people as equal, that’s when people get threatened that we’re taking power away from them. In a way we are because we’re taking their superiority and privilege away. It’s what happens when you’re conditioned to look down on people.

Watching her sister go through life more smoothly than she was able was definitely difficult, especially as the two were abandoned in the flat together for most of their teenage years after their mother, Shona’s lifeline, became trapped in an abusive relationship. Her sister was academically gifted, while Shona was rebellious, creative and out there, with colourful hair and tattoos even as a young teenager. She would steal food to survive, and vodka, and subsequently developed alcohol and self-harm issues. “I was hanging around with a group of misfits, problem kids like me,” she says. “We’d get drunk and stoned together and crash at each other’s houses, and my sister was pissed so she’d lock me out. I slept in the garage a lot. But I don’t blame her. She was raised to hate me.”

At the same time, she was also being bullied at school: called fat, ugly, monkey, dirty and told to go back to her own country, as well as being singled out for her sexuality. “I had come out as bisexual, before I knew what pansexual was,” she says. “Actually, I didn’t really come out. I just never really wasn’t. I was just the weird one in year seven who had a girlfriend. All the girls at school thought I fancied them or thought I wanted to see them naked in PE.”

White beauty was also a pressure, and she would fantasise about bleaching her skin and cutting her curves off, pushing her towards bulimia and anorexia. “I remember hating myself because I wasn’t like my friends. I ended up starving myself for years. And I still wasn’t good enough. Growing up, there was no one like me in the media, just token black people, no one to show that there was nothing wrong with the way I looked. I felt so ugly.”

Life spiralled further when she was sexually assaulted by a boyfriend and ended up staring into a rough sea one night, contemplating suicide, desperate for the pain to end. Her mum’s boyfriend had thrown a bottle of vodka at her, told her to kill herself and sent her off into the night with no shoes. “I thought people might think it was a drunken accident, so it wouldn’t affect my family,” she says. “If I could make it look like an accident, it would be okay. That was all I cared about. I just didn’t want to be here anymore. Everything hurt so much.” Thankfully a friend found her, took her in, gave her fresh clothes and they curled up together, in a daze, staring at Scary Movie 2, safe for the moment, but she knew she needed help and eventually reached out to a counsellor. Opening up about her past experiences helped, but she was still living it—the self-hatred, the bullying, the shitty homelife, the feelings of suicide. How do you change how you feel when everything around you has stayed the same?

And then, at sixteen, things really did begin to change. “I went to hospital because they thought I might have cancer,” she says. The scare proved to be without grounds, but the experience shook her. “That day I saw someone jump in front of a train and I saw a kid dying of cancer. It was the shock I needed. I saw myself as going from one to the other. I kind of didn’t want to die anymore, but I still felt like I was dying. It was like this weird depression. My brain was still saying that I didn’t deserve to live, but now I wanted to. That’s when I really started to focus on my mental health, take tablets, and try to heal.”

“People get confused when you don’t fit a stereotype. They like to put you into boxes. Like my ex’s family, who were like something from ‘Get Out’. They actually drew a pie chart of my ethnicity and would question me all the time. They made me feel like such a hood rat.”

It was her relationships with her ‘misfit’ friends that helped her to begin this process. “All of my friends were so messed up at the time with their own shit, and I was trying to help them because I’ve been through a lot in my life. People would come to me for advice, and I started seeing things from their point of view. It was a slow process, but when you’re giving advice, you realise how you should be feeling about yourself. And then I started to stand up for people being bullied because of their colour. So I went from ‘I hate my skin colour’ to ‘fuck you! This person is beautiful. We are beautiful. You can hate me for my colour, but I love me for my colour.’ So it was definitely a transition in my late teens. Like, I’m brown, get over it. My blackness was not the issue. It was the racists and the bullies who obviously have deep-rooted issues of their own.” From there, Shona went from accepting who she was to revelling in it, leaving her free to express herself as creatively as she wanted to. “You get to a point where you’re beat down so much for who you are that it gives you permission to be anything. I’ve been hated for my skin colour, for my sexuality, for my mental health, things I can’t change. People are going to hate me whatever, so I might as well be who I am. I don’t care what people think anymore.”

The problems haven’t completely disappeared, but support has helped with the self-harming and addiction issues. “It never really goes away and the temptation’s still there, but it’s not something I’m in anymore,” she says, and she is now better equipped to deal with the challenges of being a black, pansexual woman. “I’ve met people who say they just don’t find black people attractive. I always challenge them and when you dig deeper, it’s not the skin colour they don’t like but the perception of black people in the media, online, in films. On the other hand, I’ve had people tell me that I’m so exotic, fetishizing my skin colour. I’m like, I’m not a fruit!

“Being pansexual and black is hard,” she continues, “because the two communities don’t click. Everyone assumes that I’m straight because I’m brown, because you don’t see many black women who are into girls. And then there’s what a lesbian or bi- or pansexual should look like. If you’re black and gay, you have to be boyish to show that you’re not straight. People get confused when you don’t fit a stereotype. They like to put you into boxes. Like my ex’s family, who were like something from ‘Get Out’. They actually drew a pie chart of my ethnicity and would question me all the time. They made me feel like such a hood rat. Every day there was something about my race, my colour – it was crazy. They knew more about my life than I did, and then they’d say they didn’t really know me. They literally knew everything about me, but they still didn’t know me because I didn’t fit into this box. People do it all the time with black people and LGBTQ people. They need to categorise them.

“When it comes to sexuality, I just see myself as human – I don’t care what a person has in their pants; why should it matter? – but at the same time I feel alienated towards the whole humanity thing. It’s like, do you identify as a man, woman, they, them, he, her? I’m none of it. Call me what you like. I don’t care. It literally doesn’t mean anything to me. On the spectrum, I would definitely put myself outside the situation. Humanity is like me looking in rather than being a part of it. Because I’ve always been told that I’m different, I don’t feel a part of it. I’m fine with that now. I met someone who felt exactly the same after a show recently and felt instantly connected. Yes, another alien!”

These days, Shona’s life is calmer than it has ever been, with a stable homelife and an improved relationship with her sister. “Now, we love each other. We don’t have to get along, but if I’m sad I’ll go to her. She’s there for me.” Central to her life is campaigning for equality and educating others about her experiences. She says, “The issue that faces every person of colour is the feeling of not being equal, the feeling of being not good enough, that there’s something wrong with us. We need to teach each other and our children that we are good enough, we have a right to live and not just (emphasise just!) survive, that we are beautiful and we are loved. The world can be an unequal place, but we need to stand up against inequality and hate, and we, no matter what your skin colour, background, sexuality or mental health status, are all worthy. Every one of us matters. We must stand up against those who try to keep us down, lift up the most vulnerable, and make a stand against inequality wherever it may be.”

At the suggestion that her life so far has been unique, incredible and extraordinary, as a fire-eating, ex-circus-performing, burlesque dancer who has overcome so much and now stands up for the rights of others through the BLM movement, she says, “Really? I think I’m quite boring. People tell me about going on holiday with their family and I’m like, ‘On holiday with your family? No! That’s crazy!’. So much of life is about perspective!

By Hayley Sherman

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An Afternoon in Primark Changed My Life … Joni’s Story

Discrimination, Gender, Lesbian, Transgender

“It touched other aspects of my life for years to come: finding work was difficult because I was so searchable. Nobody wanted ‘that angry transwoman’ working for them.

I was standing in a queue of four or five women, all waiting to try on clothes in the fitting room in Primark, gripping a pair of skinny jeans and a couple of tops. It was only the second or third time that I’d bought women’s clothing and the first time I’d gone by myself.

“You getting those?” a sweet old lady behind asked me. “They’ll look really pretty on you.” I smiled and thanked her. I’m a magnet for old people, and we started chatting. I was glad of the distraction. It was still so early in my transition, and despite what people think about transwomen and changing rooms, it’s scary, especially with the discussions going on at the moment. TERFs would have you believe that transwomen are going into these spaces, helicoptering their genitals, doing a handstand, but I was really just interested in the clothes, and, of course, keeping safe and not getting myself beaten up, because using male spaces while female attired is dangerous. You’re in close proximity with men who do not take kindly to people wearing dresses. I don’t use female spaces to assert my femininity. I do it because it’s safe.

The queue went down slowly, and as I neared the front, I could see the young sales assistant manning the desk, giving out the number tags and hanging up returns.

Just ninja-in and ninja-out, I told myself. It had become a mantra for changing rooms, fitting rooms, toilets and any other all-female spaces. Don’t hang around. Just get in and out and hope not to be seen. My heart rate was definitely up a little now, though. I was already so uncomfortable in my own skin. But like any other woman, I can’t buy clothes without trying them on, and I’m not an easy size to clothe. I’m 6 foot 1 and built like a refrigerator. I’m not “woman-shaped”. I don’t have a face for make-up. I don’t ‘pass’. Passing is so important in society, but there’s nothing I can do to make myself look more like a stereotypical woman, and I was really trying then.

It was a huge problem for me, and none of the info I found online about how to be trans helped. It was all so ‘gatewayey’: Don’t choose a name like this because that’s a stripper name; you need to always behave in a dignified manner, be polite and courteous at all times; always wear a dress and makeup. I soaked it all in and tried to be demure and feminine and fit in. I tried to follow all of the advice, but it felt as if I’d gone from one body that didn’t belong to me into another. I had spent the first twenty-four years of my life acting as a guy, and now I was trying to fit into another box that was just as crippling. I would spend years in this place, desperately trying to find a way to fit in, throwing sparkly spaghetti at the wall to see what would stick, until I finally had to accept that this was never going to happen. And if you can’t change something, ultimately, all you can do is accept it, however hard that is. Life started to get better for me when I stopped trying to be what society told me to be and started being myself.

This was all of my worst nightmares happening at the same time. I turned around to see a long queue of women behind me, all looking around and over each other to see what was holding things up.

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I had always hung out with lesbians, most of them butch – I looked up to them; they were just so awesome and together, such a presence. They didn’t give a crap what people thought of them. Over time, I realised that I didn’t just like these women, I identified with them, I saw myself in them, and I was attracted to women, just as they were. Again, when I asked the internet how to be a transwoman, all the info online was geared towards being straight. But could I be trans and attracted to women? Could I be a transwoman without the flowery dresses and high heels? Could I be the opposite of everything the internet was telling me? Turns out, you can do anything you want, and at some point over the last seven years I stopped giving a shit and became a comfortable gender-non-conforming transwoman, or a butch trans-dyke, or transgender non-binary … if you need a label. Ultimately, my femininity isn’t defined by my attire or my body even, it’s just who I am.

But back in the early days, in Primark, I was just a baby trans, scared of being laughed at, scared of everything, still trying to fit in, with my flowery skirt and lipstick, and I wanted the moment over as quickly as possible. I wanted to try on the clothes and go, but it wasn’t to be. I finally reached the front of the queue and held up my clothes, smiling. “Just three items,” I told the sales assistant, who was about sixteen years old.

His face changed when he saw me, confusion and horror in his eyes, and he shook his head. “You can’t go in there.”

I found my voice to ask why.

“Because you’re a man. You need to use the men’s.”

This was all of my worst nightmares happening at the same time. I turned around to see a long queue of women behind me, all looking around and over each other to see what was holding things up.

“I’m not a man,” I tried, standing as upright as possible, talking in my calmest voice. “And I would like to try these on.”

But he shook his head. No, sorry. It’s not going to happen. I tried to protest further, but the words were sticking in my throat and I could feel my face glowing. All I could do was skulk away, leaving the women in the queue whispering behind me.

I didn’t leave the shop straight away. I spoke to a manager, but I was told exactly the same: if I wanted to try them on, I had to use the men’s. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, but I didn’t argue or fight. In fact, in a daze, I carefully folded the two tops and the jeans and returned them to the shelves before leaving the shop, not quite knowing what to do with myself.

I was a million miles from the activist I would become, but I was so hurt and humiliated, and I didn’t want that to happen to anyone else, so I emailed Primark, but I got nowhere. They wanted me to name the kid who’d served me. I didn’t want some kid to lose their job over it because they didn’t know any better and there wasn’t a policy in place. I didn’t want to contribute to one more person hating trans people. So I wrote a post about what had happened. It went viral. I then got a call from the local paper, The Evening Star. They wanted to write a piece about me. It wasn’t going to be a big story – just a little piece about a little thing that happened to a little person. So I agreed. If it stopped it happening to someone else, then it would be worth it. A few days later, they interviewed me at my house and then asked if I would pose for a photo in front of my house.

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“If you could just fold your arms, love,” I was told, and I obliged, not thinking too much about my natural resting bitch face, sparce makeup, the hairband and lucky hoodie I was wearing. It was, after all, a little piece about a little person … or so I thought.

The next day I got a text from a friend asking if I’d seen The Evening Star. I checked it out. I was on the cover, and that picture of me – which was horrendous and angry-looking – was huge. Not only was I outside my house, but they printed my address. The little piece about a little person had turned into something dangerous. I was now at risk. And it didn’t stop there. The local paper sold the story to The Daily Mail, along with the photo, and the Daily Star, and the Mirror, as well as papers in Italy and Kenya; I had a call from ITN; I even got a message from the South Korea Broadcasting Service, asking me if I could appear there. It was everywhere, and although The Evening Star had reported the story fairly neutrally, the likes of The Daily Mail obviously didn’t. I was still trying to find a way to exist, and now I was an angry-trans poster child. In fact, to this day, if you search ‘angry transwoman’ in Google Images, that picture comes up second, and I’m one of the least angry people I know.

“I now feel marked, as if I have to live my life differently because I’m labelled, and it will all explode again if I slip up – like ‘Angry Trans’ is at it again!”

My mum, bless her, was terrified that I’d get my head kicked in. I was scared too. I stayed in for three or four days. Then I started to lock down my social media because the deluge of abuse had begun. I was picked up by a TERF site that basically gathers as much information as possible about anyone in trans stories, including where they work, where they live, before rewriting them and switching the pronouns to misgender them. I’m still on there to this day. I set up fake Twitter and Facebook accounts to soak up the abuse, but my face was appearing all over the place: Steven Crowther, who’s a right-wing pundit, used my picture for a piece about transwomen opposing breastfeeding, which is bullshit. The Daily Mail has since used my picture online for an article about sex offenders. I have contacted them and asked them to remove it, but they said they don’t remove photos due to embarrassment.

And it wasn’t just abuse that I had to endure; it touched other aspects of my life for years to come: finding work was difficult because I was so searchable. Nobody wanted ‘that angry trans woman’ working for them. I eventually changed my legal name, but I now feel marked, as if I have to live my life differently because I’m labelled, and it will all explode again if I slip up – like ‘Angry Trans’ is at it again! I exist online under an alias and think twice about anything I post. It made me scared to engage in activism for a long time, but although it has been a painful experience, it did make a difference.

Not long after it happened, I ran into someone who asked if I was the Primark girl. She thanked me for speaking out, told me that it made her feel seen and made a difference to her. It also impacted Primark, who introduced a trans policy as a result of the backlash, so although it’s been hard, I’m glad it happened – if I could go back in time, though, I might not have folded my arms on that picture. I might even have smiled. Ultimately, if it’s made it easier for just one trans person to ninja-in/ninja-out without trouble, then it’s definitely been worth it. For me personally, however, I haven’t used a public fitting room since that day and I probably never will.

Joni Bendall’s story, as told to and written by ghostwriter Hayley Sherman

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Growing Up Hated … Shona’s Story

“I’ve been hated for my skin colour, for my sexuality, for my mental health, things I can’t change. People are going to hate me whatever, so I might as well be who I am. I don’t care what people think anymore”Read More

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