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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