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.

Check out Artwork by incredible Asperger’s monochrome artist, Nick Copsey

“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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Hayley the Happy Lezzer: The Gender Dance-Off

Gender, Hayley Sherman, Lesbian, Non-Binary

By Hayley Sherman

“Had I been growing up now, ‘non-binary’ may have been a shoe that fit, but as I skidded through my teens in the nineties, gender was as fixed as the colour of your skin; you could change it no more than you could change the weather or Sporty Spice’s insistence that she was straight.”

When I was about eleven, I won a £5 Co-op voucher in a dancing competition in an old people’s home. I have no idea why I was there on my own, but it was a cake stall and tombola kind of day, and there were maybe five of us kids bopping to ‘When Will I Be Famous?’ by Bros in a threadbare-carpet clearing, watched by flossy-haired old dears – me in my shorts, Rowdy Roddy Piper T-shirt and floppy, mousey, boyish curtains. I don’t know if I even knew it was a competition until the music stopped and a middle-aged woman in a flowery number gave out the prizes.

“And in second place … (pause for tension) … this handsome young fella here.”

I looked around, and when I turned back, she was coming at me, lips first, and planted a smacker on my cheek. Me? A handsome young fella? But …

“Give him a round of applause,” she told the dusty crowds, and I blushed as the place erupted into creaky applause.

As she moved onto the winner, I was left gripping my voucher, not only wondering if the Co-op sold anything other than frozen chips and fish fingers (which was what I was usually sent there to get), but if I should correct her. I’m a girl! You kissed a girl! But at the same time there was something too delicious about it. I’d wanted to be a boy my entire life, and in that moment, I was. It wasn’t like at school, where kids I’d known since I was five would laugh and ask, ‘Are you a boy or a girl?’ in high-pitched voices. This was actually passing. Eighties disco-boy realness! It didn’t stop me running to spend my voucher before anyone found out and took it away, though.

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I joke now that I was a little boy until I was about twenty, when I became a woman. There was never a girl phase. I still wonder if the girls in my school had secret makeup, hair and giggling classes that I was excluded from. Without these classes (which I assume also taught appropriate walking, talking and breast management) the transition into womanhood wasn’t particularly easy, but what other option was there? I couldn’t remain the muddy, tree-climbing scamp that I had been as a child, and the secret ‘man classes’ at school also went on behind my back. I wasn’t particularly butch anyway; I was just other.

I occasionally tried to go undercover with women, drawing on my face and limping along in high heels, but I was always sprung, and I’m not a natural conformist, so more often than not, I would just do me, which thankfully always landed me good friends: initially menfolk who didn’t easily fit the man-mould and then other lesbians when I finally worked out where to find them. 

Had I been growing up now, ‘non-binary’ might have been a shoe that fit, but as I skidded through my teens in the nineties, gender was as fixed as the colour of your skin; you could change it no more than you could change the weather or Sporty Spice’s insistence that she was straight. And, to be honest, wrapping my brain around being gay was hard enough; not viewing myself as a proper woman was something that would occasionally make me feel shit, but it wasn’t the centre of my world.

Checkout artwork by Nicola Copsey

Now, many years later, I’m glad that the wonderful term ‘non-binary’ was unavailable to me, although I see that it fits some people, because I feel like I’ve won a hard-fought battle over the years to pocket the term ‘woman’ on my own terms, to wrangle and panel-beat it into something more comfortable. And the gender revolution has provided something that feels so much more useful to me than a new term; it’s given me representations of women that I can relate to … on TV, online, in the street, in movies; they’re everywhere, and seeing myself represented – seeing us all represented – is validating. As a younger woman I had such a fixed idea of what a woman should be – everything I wasn’t. Turns out it was my definition of the word ‘woman’ that was faulty, not me; my position on the vast sliding scale of femininity does not determine my success or even my qualification as a woman. We come in all shapes, sizes and flavours, all just as delicious as each other.

Hayley Sherman is a writer, ghostwriter, blogger and editor who just wants everyone to be nice to each other. Her blog smiles in the face of adversity, licks the cheek of the oppressor and generally reflects on her denial about being a middle-aged lesbian. hayleyshermanwriter.com.

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Trans in Lockdown: Is Life Still Going On?

Covid-19, Gender, Transgender, Wendy Cole

By Wendy Cole

“Gender dysphoria alert! Childhood equated to me: a boy. Yet, how can that be true?  I am a woman; those memories should be of a girl. What had gone wrong? What would my father think if he knew? Was I dishonouring my father by not being the son he knew? The truth of the past jarred and fought the truth of today.”

Had 2020 pursued its correct course, I would have:

Continued attending Evolve Trans. (my local trans group) face-to-face;

Spent a week or more visiting my recently widowed mother;

Written a good deal more poetry to work out a whole host of thoughts and feelings;

Turned the image of my throne that I had created during therapy into a sculpture and completed designing the rest of the room wherein that throne ought to reside;

Took that first major step: my first appointment with the Gender Identity Clinic (G.I.C.)  in July. 

But, as probably everybody knows, the biggest nuclear explosion (the Covid pandemic) shattered the world. One minute I was trying my best to enjoy my birthday (Can I really say ‘enjoy’? I cannot. It sounds heartless; feels guilty; as this was the first without my father), and the next I was being told to take my laptop with me and work from home.Whilst other colleagues struggled with balancing laptops on knees and even ironing-boards, I had an extra room that I could use as my study.  I had often worked from home since November.

My father had died in May 2019, so Yuletide 2019 was unbearable; I couldn’t mix with the frivolity of Christmas shoppers. Thoughts of Father constantly sent me back to my childhood; that childhood I was a boy.  I could not reconcile that with the woman I now am. Due to gender dysphoria and depression I couldn’t face people, so I worked at home. So, for me, when the world was suddenly turned upside down and put on hold, little had changed.

Or so I thought.

Trans in lockdown? Like this devastating plague, isolation had also mutated. When I needed it, isolation was reassurance. A pulling up of the drawbridge and curling up in that throne (or bed, if I ever get round to drawing it); close my eyes tight and view the mental image of me: the woman I am: much much shorter; slight of frame and long raven hair.

Isolation is nuanced now. It is sometimes a reassurance; other times a torture of a multitude of thoughts.

In lockdown, May 2020 was the first year’s anniversary of my father’s death; June the anniversary of his interment.

My sister, and a number of friends and colleagues say that I over-think things. I analyse something from its obvious black and white state, and instead find anxiety from the multitude of shades I seem to create.  Between May and long past June, that analysis focused on memories of childhood with my now-lost father. Gender dysphoria alert! Childhood equated to me: a boy. Yet, how can that be true?  I am a woman; those memories should be of a girl. What had gone wrong? What would my father think if he knew? Was I dishonouring my father by not being the son he knew? The truth of the past jarred and fought the truth of today.

But, due to past therapies and bereavement counselling (that I was now able to pursue on the telephone – which, I feel, was actually better; I tended to have to really focus hard), I have illumined confidence to say that was the past. It is not my present. I do not need to allow it to become my future.

Easier said than done, but the experience of presenting myself as the true woman I am at home (yes, full make-up even in lock-down) and in town, is the constant beacon that I am me only as a woman; so much confidence; ability to speak out. The beacon has a stable foundation: it is what others (not me) have said to me. Some call me Miss Sassy. 

Sassy.

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But, isolation causes me to overthink. Watching “RuPaul’s Drag Race” makes me question: am I a male in drag? Oh, thank goodness and God bless Emily (Trans. Evolve) for her one-to-ones during lockdown. She put me straight (though I am still pan-romantic – there’s a joke there if you look for it, reader).  She emphasised that I  am a woman: clothes and make-up are skillfully placed to pass and not be noticed; not a panto-dame or drag.

Writing this, it is a year on from a hate crime that I experienced. And history repeats. Recently, in Tesco, I experienced it again. I was amazed at how resolute I was this time. (I wanted to ask sympathetically: “What is making you afraid?”). Sassy? No, now that incident gnaws away at me. Stepping outside, I am more anxious (though I know I will be great when I meet those who know me. Tesco staff call: “Hello, Wendy,” or “Are you making trouble again?” for example).

But I feel prevented from fully being me. It’s like in lockdown I – the real me – is locked away.  I cannot change my name, and the G.I.C. is on hold; that major step in becoming me is prevented. Also, nurture: to grow, I need to be around other women.

Check out Louise Clare Dalton’s performance of her poem, What They Told You

Finally, my mother. She does not know. My sister says not to tell, as mother is still frail over the death. I am a bad daughter as I do not telephone as much as I should. I am in tears after every banal chit-chat; forcing myself not to say what I need. And I totally despise myself for not being me. Horrible of me, I know, but I partially long for a second wave, so I cannot go home to mother. How can I endure even a single day in male drag? How can I say anything that is not real?

Not Sassy, but I am ‘sowing the ground’ of her realisation.  Recently, I suggested she watch ‘Glow up’; that I’d love to take a make-up course (she thinks it’s down to my theatre love). I told her I have dyed my hair red. We chatted briefly about “Sewing Bee” – though I couldn’t say how cute the male models were.

But it lays the groundwork.

The future is female.  

Wendy Cole spent four years in banking, thirteen years as a teacher and seven as a deputy head, before working for the government, but the real her is a poet, photographer, historian and chef. Kylie, Daniel Craig and Wendy have the same thing in common … they were born in the same year!

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Transitioning Triathlete: Hitting Barriers

Gender, Kimberley Drain, Sports, Transgender

By Kimberley Drain

“I can’t prove or disprove that sports are trying to put barriers up for trans-athletes, I can only tell you how I feel, and it certainly feels like sports are putting up any obstacle they legally can.”

Hello Reader,

I’m Kim. I’m a twenty-seven-year-old trans-woman from the UK. I’m an (average) amateur runner and triathlete. This is my first blog, which is all very exciting. I’ve grappled with my gender identity my entire childhood, finally coming out in my twenties. I’m starting blogging just at the point when I’m beginning the process of being recognised as a woman, FINALLY by the sports I otherwise enjoy (running and triathlon).

Not being recognised as a woman, despite being out in all other areas of my life, has been difficult. Initially, I thought it didn’t really bother me – I had higher priorities to sort in my transition, and I knew that it would take time and money to meet the relevant criteria; money in particular has been a barrier – but I feel determined now to meet the challenge.

However, when my running club’s chairmen directed me to the relevant transgender policy of EA (England Athletics) and British Triathlon, I felt excluded. Rules require me to enter all races as male unless I can prove that my hormones are in the correct range for a year. I felt I didn’t belong, and my first thought was to give up all sport. So many transpeople give up sports, which is such a sad loss. But my own club has been great about my transition. At time of writing, we don’t have a club policy on trans-athletes, because they haven’t needed one before now. We’re currently working on changing this.

To clarify, I’ve been entering all races as male to date, as the rules require. However, transmen are immediately allowed to compete as male, in my sports (running and triathlon) certainly. That’s just plain sexism in action. If you perceive transwomen as having an advantage, you clearly view that transmen don’t have one. So … because transmen are at a disadvantage and not at risk of becoming successful, people are happy? At least that’s how it looks. I’m so flattered people think I’m a threat to women’s sport, but I’m really not, and it’s just so frustrating to deal with. It really affects my mental health.

For myself at the enjoyable, but certainly amateur, local races, nobody is forced to take doping tests, although steroids may or may not be used to enhance performance, but if you’re trans, you’ve got to spend hundreds of pounds proving that your hormones have been in range for a year. I can’t prove or disprove that sports are trying to put barriers up for trans-athletes, I can only tell you how I feel, and it certainly feels like sports are putting up any obstacle they legally can. It feels like discrimination, certainly at grassroots level, where, as I said, you see no doping tests, for example. It’s not transgender people’s fault that sporting bodies around the world have dragged their feet for longer and harder than the rest of society, but it feels as if we’re being penalised … not that trans-people are that fantastically accepted, respected and generally understood by wider society anyway …

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I have Crohn’s disease and spend a lot of time at the hospital. I bring this up because healthcare professionals seem to be able to manage the balance of respecting me as a woman (despite not being assigned female at birth, at the same hospital) and assessing my trans-female body, in person or looking at scans, bloods, etc., without a problem. There’s just more dignity and respect at the hospital.

However, at a race, it’s a different story; Miss Kimberley Drain is categorised MS (male senior) at registration. When I collect my racer number, race instructions, etc., there is no dignity, no respect, no choice in outing myself. I am openly trans, but what if I wasn’t? I have spent years progressing to be my true self, but these sports might as well use my dead name. And the further my transition gets and the longer I’ve been living as a woman, the harder competing as male becomes.

But I’m staying strong. I have a lot of shit to put up with, including the transphobic comments that come with being a trans-athlete, but it all just fuels me. I just channel it, so keep it coming 😘 That isn’t intended as confrontational, as it might sound, but this trans-athlete isn’t going anywhere. I intend to carry on swimming, cycling and running, and I intend to do it as an approved woman … eventually. People will discredit my achievements, but at least I’ll finally be my authentic self in all areas of my life.

I’ll keep you updated …

Thank you for reading.

Kimberley Drain is a 27-year-old transwoman, and a club-affiliated runner and triathlete (average amateur). She is one of these strange people that enjoy training more than racing … and she’s not short of opinions. Find her on Strava.

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