Reading Trans, by Juliet Jacques
A hybrid memoir, thick with the feeling of a certain time and place, takes us on an excursion across personal, political, and pop landscapes, opening up new possibilities for disarming a cultural climate hostile to transgender individuals.
First commissioned in 2009 and officially running from 2010-2012, Juliet Jacques publicly debuted the journey of her sex reassignment surgery (SRS) in her acclaimed column, Transgender Journey, that ran in a series for The Guardian. Transgender Journey was long-listed for the Orwell Prize in 2011, and provided a generous preview of the sharp, self-aware writing displayed in her memoir. In a blog post from February, 2011, Jacques asks Guardian readers, “As soon as I entered the NHS pathway and began the real-life experience, I had to ask myself: “What sort of woman?” In Trans: A Memoir, her first memoir published by Verso this fall, Jacques unpacks this question.
Trans is a mixture of personal memoir and the cultural and political history of transgender rights. Memories are interlaced with music, literature, and film references, elevating these scenes from a reiteration of the past to moving images, sharpened by hindsight and thick with the feeling of a certain time and certain place. The memoir is decadent with a soundtrack that includes The Smiths, New Order, Joy Division, The Talking Heads, and My Bloody Valentine. The musical references contextualize the personal history of the author, but it also clues readers in to the larger cultural atmosphere. In a sense, music is an extension of Jacques, serving as an outlet for self-expression and self-actualization. Moreover, films such as The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994), allowed Jacques to see portrayals of the LGBTQ community that neither vilified nor mocked its subjects. When explaining her insatiable appetite for film, Jacques says, “I kept watching anything that might help me to understand how sexuality and gender identity were separate issues, even if they had often been associated with each other and explored within the same spaces.”
In addition to movies, Jacques explores the world of sports and what that space means when inhabited by a transgender individual. For example, when Jacques gets the chance to play soccer with a local team, it’s a personal victory that also echoes the tenth anniversary of the death of Justin Fashanu, a prominent English and Black football player who came out in an interview. Due to the intensity of public scrutiny and family disapproval following his admission, Fashanu committed suicide in May of 1998. Aware of the general silence surrounding LGBTQ stories in English sports, Jacques connects to the story of Fashanu and becomes “obsessed, talking at length … to anyone who would listen.”
Jacques uses the non-linear narrative to weld the intimacy of the personal to the larger cultural scale, interspersing memories with anecdotes that establish a time and a general reading of the societal rules of the mainstream. The book begins with Jacques contemplating her decision to undergo sex reassignment surgery; the six weeks before the procedure seem frighteningly short. The surgery is our first introduction to Jacques and acts as a bookend, positioned before the second chapter, which takes the readers back to Jacques’s college days in Horsham. The fact that her surgery comes up already in chapter one doesn’t mean this is the central story of her book. Paradoxically, by starting here, she gets the medical details of the surgery out of the way and can talk about the rest of her life.
Her memoir isn’t merely a chronicle of personal transformation, but also how it fits into cultural and historical change. Jacques skillfully interweaves larger historical events into pop culture, showing the two as often connected variations on the same thing. She discusses films such as Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and how it relates to the transphobia and discrimination evident in government practices and social norms. For example, she recalls watching the movie and feeling uneasy about the reveal that Lois Einhorn, a detective that kissed the title character, is transexual. The reveal is treated as a joke and Lois Einhorn is thought of as nothing more than a freakish anomaly. Jacques says, “Every man [in the movie] pukes in unison: clearly, I was meant to puke with them, or at least laugh. I couldn’t, but I still felt sick.” Jacques then notes that only a few years before the release of Ace Ventura, Margaret Thatcher passed Section 28, which banned ‘the promotion of homosexuality’ in schools. The two events may seem unrelated, but Jacques maintains that pop culture trends can take shape from political events, similar to a trickle-down effect.
Throughout Trans, Jacques suggests that cinema’s cartoonish portrayals of sexuality as seen in Ace Ventura is born from a potent combination of ignorance and fear – ignorance of the transgender community and fear of the unknown, of a deviation from “accepted” forms of gender and sexuality. And in her view, the best way to address that is through an education of the public that mixes theory and lived truths. In an interview with BOMB magazine, Jacques says to Rebekah Weikel, “The Guardian series was a direct intervention into mainstream culture, designed to use the site’s high level of accessibility. I targeted the Guardian because I knew just how many people in boring office jobs would read the website at work, stumbling across things they would never purposely look for in a library or watch on TV.” However, for as dedicated to educating the ignorant public as Jacques is, she’s also committed to a narrative that nurtures people who share her experiences, and her writing is free of sanitized, after-school-special, feel-good endings.
Trans is the kind of hybrid memoir that would not be as compelling if following a different structure. Although there is no singular way to discuss or capture the transgender experience, Jacques creates a memoir that offers alternative conversations to disarm and dismantle a hostile, antagonistic, and often violent cultural climate towards transgender individuals.