This summer Brighton hosted Europe’s first ever trans pride march as part of its second annual Trans Pride weekend.
Traditional pride events encompass transgender people by default under the LGBT umbrella. However, there has been a growing frustration that at such celebrations, the T – as well as coming last in the acronym – is usually the last thing on anyone’s mind.
This year I wanted to see for myself what exactly trans pride is and why it exists now. I am trans and have trans friends, but I’ve only become acquainted with the UK trans community in the past year. I wouldn’t count myself as an activist nor even a very engaged member.
I arrived on Friday afternoon to stay with Fox Fisher, a south coast native and one of the key organisers. He is the softly-spoken co-chair of the event, as well as graphic designer, documenter and unofficial arbiter of occasional communal strife. He’d hate the idea, but he seemed like the event’s figurehead.
Admittedly, I hadn’t been fully convinced of the need for Trans Pride, in addition to Brighton Pride, London Pride and the rest. London Pride this year felt like my event too; a day for queers and gender variant folk as well as – if not as much as – conventionally attractive, middle-class gay men.
The trans community does have unique things to celebrate. We are more visible and a few trans individuals now have positive public profiles. The most famous of these is probably Laverne Cox, one of the stars of Netflix’s darkly comic prison drama, Orange is the New Black.
Time magazine recently featured her as their cover star, with a headline proclaiming the “trans tipping point”. The implication being that trans people aren’t just more visible, they are on verge of a victory, close to securing the same legal rights and social equality as their LGB comrades. Yet, those in the community know this isn’t true. The majority of trans people still face a daily struggle just to lead comfortable and safe lives.
This is not for want of campaigning since the very dawn of the LGBT rights movement. The 1969 Stonewall riots were spearheaded by gender variant people – most notably Sylvia Rivera – as well as gay, lesbian and bisexual people. Yet ever since that watershed moment, trans people have been sidelined. In the UK, advocacy heavyweight Stonewall – named after those very riots – is still simply “the lesbian, gay and bisexual charity”.
However, proving the accelerating pace of change this year, just last week, Stonewall’s new CEO Ruth Hunt began consulting with trans activists on this issue. Opening this meeting with an apology to the trans community, Hunt seems utterly sincere in wanting to find a way for Stonewall to work for or alongside trans people in future.
So, the trans community isn’t at a tipping point yet. We lack victories to celebrate and equality in which to luxuriate. Perhaps this is the biggest impetus for Trans Pride – an event for celebration but also demonstration and organisation.
This year it fell a week before Brighton Pride, or as Trans Pride attendees affectionately referred to it, “big pride”. Not complete affection though. “Big” doesn’t just refer to size and attendance. It is also shorthand for corporatised and expensive – an event that might have had too much to drink and lost its soul.
At first, I wondered if Trans Pride would be this community’s boozy equivalent. With so much work to be done on the equality front, was it really the best use of our energies? But I soon learned this event didn’t fit the pride stereotype. Trans Pride, so went the refrain, feels like big pride used to feel; a politically engaged and community orientated party.
The weekend began on Friday night with a packed programme of shorts at Duke of York’s cinema.
I had first became aware of Fisher via the 2011 Channel 4 documentary, My Transsexual Summer (MTS). He and his co-contributors, who included aspiring filmmaker Lewis Hancox, became minor celebrities in the LGBT world after it aired.
However, Fisher was frustrated with the production company’s final cut and so he and Hancox formed Lucky Tooth Productions.
They were premiering their Patchwork series that night – artistically shot profiles of gender variant people from across Britain. Where MTS was documentary by checklist of transgender tropes: family turmoil, dramatic surgery, laddish banter and ladies applying makeup, Patchwork is a sincere attempt to capture the reality and diversity of trans lives.
Within a few years, the pair have gone from subjects to storytellers. Their transformation is a microcosm of the wider community. Moreover, Channel 4 supported Patchwork in part, perhaps in tacit acknowledgment of having missed the mark with MTS.
The cinema audience applauded every short and, where possible, turned to congratulate personally those who had come to see themselves on the big screen. One film, about nine-year-old Kai and his mum, sent waves of intense empathy through the audience, tearful one minute, laughing the next.
We finished the night at the Marlborough pub, from where Saturday’s march would depart. It was described to me as “the hub of the LGBT scene in Brighton”. The raucous crowd was mixed and overlapping; part regular queer clientele, part transplanted cinema audience. The celebratory mood spilled out on to the pavement and side streets.
Being jostled with my pint of Guinness, I was reminded why the LGBT acronym makes sense. Aside from both campaigning for equality, many trans people came up through gay, lesbian and bisexual scenes. In gathering there, we weren’t engaged in a marriage of convenience, but celebrating among friends, lovers and allies whose histories and identities often interweave.
At 7am on a hot summer morning, I headed to the seafront, intending to pass Brighton police station. There was something I had to see. When I got there I couldn’t quite believe it. The station really was flying the trans flag.
I encountered police officers in person not long after. I had arrived so early that the park was almost empty. A man approached me while I set up my camera, to ask why a stage was being erected. I’m not sure he understood “Trans” but clearly, he was not a fan of “Pride”.
Why can’t they keep it in the bedroom? It’s not natural is it? After all, it’s Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.
He wasn’t directing his ire at me personally, but only because I was careful to pretend that I was just another press guy. Whenever he said something awful, I mumbled in a way that sounded supportive. I felt ashamed of my reaction but felt I should avoid any escalation without others nearby to back me up.
Afterwards, I was taken aback when Sarah from the organising committee called the police community liaison. The officer, with whom Sarah was on first name terms, explained why he wanted to log this as a hate incident.
Diverse communities live cheek by jowl in Brighton, so the police constantly assess the lie of the land, hoping to identify trouble spots and makers before they become a threat to peaceful coexistence. When the officer asked if I’d felt threatened, I hesitated before realising the honest answer was “yes”.
For the rest of the day the police were only visible on their stall alongside other community groups in the park, offering advice and solidarity. They weren’t called upon again for anything more serious than steering marchers out of the way of traffic.
I headed down to the start of the march with Fisher at midday. As we approached the Marlborough, hundreds of people appeared, many more than we had anticipated. There were banners, whistles, megaphones, union reps, music makers, pushchairs and pets; a sea of festive faces and raised voices.
I remembered what someone had said that morning,
It’s a march, not a parade.
Celebration and demonstration in equal measure. We set off and wound our way down one of Brighton’s busiest streets.
Bystanders looked on, almost as numerous as the marchers. There was no protest. Most seemed to know what the march was for and offered jolly support. Others seemed bored of yet another street closure.
When I asked a police officer about the calm atmosphere he said: “People are used to it. If it’s not one march it’s another.” The trans focus clearly wasn’t scandalous, but I couldn’t tell how much of this acceptance was Brighton and how much of it a sign of wider changing perceptions.
At the park, some non-marchers accepted free wristbands and joined the swelling, sweaty rumpus of punk music, standup comedy and spoken word inside. All ages and abilities were represented, though unlike at other pride events I’ve attended recently, the crowd was very white.
Local MP Caroline Lucas pitched her keynote speech somewhere between celebration and call to action. The audience was most animated by news that she is lobbying in parliament for Brighton to have its own gender clinic.
As things stand, adults in London and south-east England who approach their GP with questions about gender are referred to one clinic in west London. Unsurprisingly, this clinic is on its knees.
An estimated 2-5% of the population is gender variant and more than 16m peoplelive in London and the south-east. This means that approximately half a million people have just one clinic to potentially turn to.
Mid-afternoon, I met a bookish young Chinese man called Theodore, looking hot and slightly flustered. He passed me a clipboard and explained he was collecting signatures to support his appeal to stay in the UK, in order, he said, to continue living as the man he knows himself to be.
To transition from female to male in China, he’d have had to take black market hormones or get consent from his parents to seek legal treatment, even as an adult. But, he said, they would never give him this.
He also described being “touched” by an employer because the ‘F’ marker on his passport didn’t match with his masculine presentation when he arrived to start an internship. He said his life in China had been hell.
At 6pm the sun finally dipped below the Georgian terrace beside the park. People splayed on the grass to talk numbers. The march had attracted 450 people, several hundred more than they’d expected. The park had seen almost 2,000 unique visitors throughout the afternoon, way up on last year.
Later that evening, people reassembled for the official after party.
When we arrived at the after party around 9pm, the Brighton Arts Club was crowded and sweltering. Fisher told me that the venue used to be a transvestite bar. Inside it had the vibe of a European squat.
Outside, I found Fisher talking to a woman whose sharp bone structure was accentuated by piercings and tattoos. They were discussing an argument that was, at that moment, causing a schism between parts of Brighton’s queer and feminist communities.
On Sunday evening, Trans Pride 2014 would end with an event I’d been looking forward to, not as a reporter, but as a deprived swimmer. It would be my first chance to don swim shorts and dive in to a public pool in more than a decade. Before that though, a few dozen of us gathered for a BBQ on the beach.
Swimming is probably the most anxiety-inducing social activity a trans person can face. Public semi-nakedness can compromise a person’s sense of self along with their identity in the eyes of others. No one is crazy about swimwear, but for most the trade off is worth it. For trans people the stakes are too high. And if feeling comfortable means staying covered up, at most pools you aren’t welcome.
One Brighton pool has held trans inclusive swim sessions for the past year or so. Friends and family are also welcome. The dresscode is flexible and the lifeguards given awareness training. One has become so committed to the sessions, he’s spoken of in almost heroic terms by regular swimmers. He was one of many non-trans attendees at other events over the weekend.
It didn’t attract the same crowds as the park event on Saturday but the pool party seemed to me a more precise indicator of why Trans Pride is important. On an individual level, it isn’t about celebration or demonstration, but rather about feeling at ease, dare I say normal.
Trans Pride 2014 felt united and purposeful, with celebration as a means to an end, not the end in itself. Its novelty indicates how recently the community felt safe enough to be proud in public.
On a micro level, the weekend was about a kid feeling able to swim in a public pool with his family. The largely unspoken hope being that such small victories will accumulate to become paradigm shifts.