CN Lester is a trans activist, musician, teacher, academic and author. They took time out in their typically hectic schedule to talk to Lee Williscroft-Ferris about a very exciting new project, as well as the ongoing battle for trans equality.
TQ: Hi CN, how are you today?
CN: Feeling just about fully-caffeinated, which is always a concern in January. Enough coffee and this month might be just about doable.
Tell us about ‘Trans Like Me’.
It’s the culmination of everything I’ve been doing in trans activism, blogging and gender/sex/sexuality/feminist research over the past seven years – the only problem now is trying to squeeze it all into one book! While I’m a big fan of some of the most recent trans memoirs – particularly Janet Mock’s and Juliet Jacques’ – I knew that that mode wasn’t right for what I wanted to do. Instead, I’ve tried to capture the best parts of my personal spoken word pieces and translate them into essays on specific themes related to trans issues: media representation, feminism, language, love and sexuality, human rights. I wanted to present a broad palette of research, but in my own voice, coming from the immediacy of my own life. Because this is, underneath it all, what we’re talking about – the value attached to trans lives, and the ways in which we are devalued. I can’t be hypothetical or detached about that.
How does it feel that Virago have picked the book up?
A bit unreal still, to be honest – I think I’m only going to believe it when I have a copy in my hand. But it’s incredibly exciting – and, more importantly, it feels like the right fit. I had already met my editor Aliah Ahmed before my agent sent her the proposal, and I’d been really impressed by her understanding of trans issues. Virago focus mainly on women writers, but they made it very clear right from the start that they also include important feminist works by male writers, and wanted to expand to include genderqueer people such as myself. I’ve found Ailah’s insights really helpful – particularly when it comes to inter-feminist critiques of the movement’s shortcomings regarding intersectionality, and ways in which we could all do better.
This is, underneath it all, what we’re talking about – the value attached to trans lives, and the ways in which we are devalued. I can’t be hypothetical or detached about that.
What do you hope to achieve with the publication of the book?
Part of me is tempted to give a flip answer to this, but in all honesty, I just hope that anyone who reads it gets the message that trans people are fully, totally, equally human. There are other aspects too; I hope it gives readers new ways of questioning themselves, of seeing themselves. I hope it raises the awareness of people outside of a traditional binary of gender. I hope it’s enjoyable, if not always comfortable, to read. But that main issue is what lies at the heart of it – that trans people are not abnormal, not disposable, not pitiable or laughable. And I hope that, in twenty years time, it will seem ridiculous that I just had to write that statement.
You’re a very busy bee! Where are you at with your music right now?
I am! I’m just about to launch the kickstarter for the next album, ‘Come Home’, which I’ll be recording in the first week of March. It’ll be landing around the same time as the book – and the tour will include a Transpose night at The Barbican, which I’m pretty excited about.
That main issue is what lies at the heart of it – that trans people are not abnormal, not disposable, not pitiable or laughable.
Going back to trans issues, how would you evaluate 2015 in terms of progress on trans equality? What hurdles remain?
As ever, very mixed. Sometimes it feels like we’ve advanced to an almost unthinkable point – other times the sheer weight of still present hatred and oppression can sink you. We have yet to achieve full equality under law – let alone socially – and the politics of austerity are hitting trans people hard. So I’m glad for the increasing visibility, and the increase in debate but that needs to translate into concrete gains in healthcare, equality law, education and social care.
There’s been some debate this year around the compatibility of LGB and TQ+. We know how we feel about that here at The Queerness. What about yourself?
I could give a really long and convoluted answer here, and I’m struggling not to! Suffice to say, we face the same enemies – we need to have each others’ backs.
What do you believe you be the single most important factor in achieving full equality for trans and non-binary people?
I don’t think there can be a single factor – not when, as neatly put by Audre Lorde, “we do not live single issue lives”. We’re capable of fighting on multiple fronts. I don’t think we need to do ourselves the injustice of trying to limit our needs.
I’m glad for the increasing visibility, and the increase in debate but that needs to translate into concrete gains in healthcare, equality law, education and social care.
Do you feel that Britain is any further ahead in terms of understanding and supporting Non-binary people?
Socially, I’ve noticed a big difference in the past couple of years – in good and bad ways. More media requests for tell-all stories, which I could do without, but also a greater understanding when I’m doing educational or outreach work.
Marcus Stow HAS WRITTEN for The Queerness on the potential power of Twitter in uniting black people across the diaspora. Do you have similar thoughts about Twitter and trans people?
I think that one of the best aspects of Twitter is the ways in which voices which are regularly silenced – I’m thinking particularly of trans people of colour, disabled trans people, trans people who cannot be out (and many more categories, all of which can include each other) – can be amplified instead. Not only can we reach each other, we can reverse the mainstream trans narrative if we have the will to do so.
How did it feel to be voted onto the Rainbow List again?
Weird, in the way that lists are weird, and limited – but I can’t pretend that it hasn’t been an enormous help to my career. I don’t want to fall into the sophistry of thinking that it makes me somehow more important, because I don’t think it does but I am grateful for the people who voted for me, and who continue to support what I’m trying to do.
Not only can we reach each other, we can reverse the mainstream trans narrative if we have the will to do so.
Just how important is validation like that for an activist like yourself?
The most important validation is simply to hear that your work matters. So often it can feel like shouting into the void. I’m so grateful to all the people who give feedback, who take the time to teach, to share their knowledge.
Finally, if you were able to talk to your young self, what would you say in hindsight?
Thank you for staying alive.
Follow Lee on Twitter (@calamospondylus)