Internal Transphobia

I’ve had something on my mind since moving to London, and it’s time to come clean.

In the summer of 2006 I threw away the last of my boy’s clothes and, a fortnight later, decided to sample the ‘transgender scene’ in London. Living in Nottingham at the time, I imagined the Way Out Club (which I’d discovered on the internet) to be a huge and glitzy affair – the transgender equivalent of legendary gay superclub Heaven. It would be filled with amazingly beautiful and sophisticated transsexual people, who’d make me feel like a mere provincial wannabe.

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Alex Silverfish

Not quite. I hadn’t considered that it would attract those who struggle most with their gender identity. The Way Out seemed somewhat bitchy, and many of the girls seemed desperate for sex. Tales of their depression and nocturnal lifestyles surprised me, but I was soon to learn the reasons behind some of their problems.

As the club was emptying, a trans woman stopped me and told me I was ‘fierce’. I didn’t know what she meant, though I accepted an invitation to a post-club party at hers.

It was fun. I’d never been at a trans-only gathering before, and I was intrigued. We drank wine in the living room and chatted about London, pop music and transitioning. I slept over.

The woman putting me up was an incredibly warm, kind-hearted individual, with a thick Italian accent and faith in Jesus Christ. Her name was Alex Silverfish.

Another of the trans girls lived in the flat above, so the next day they decided to show me round the colourful districts of Bethnal Green. But what happened next came as a shock.

Hostile stares awaited us outside. An old man of Asian origin turned and followed us, shouting: “Men! Abominations! Disgusting… fake hair, fake tits: fake woman!’ but my new friends seemed unsurprised. Many other men hung around the district looking amused. I alone was flabbergasted.

“It’s OK once we get past here – they love us in the town” Alex assured me. But children on bikes followed us, shouting ‘Fucking trannies!’ and throwing bits of rubbish at us. I was livid. Alex and her friend saw this as much a part of going out as putting on one’s shoes. For them, it was.
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We encountered a few rude stares after that, but on the whole we were fine on the hot streets of Bethnal Green, with its outdoor drinkers and quirky fashion boutiques to rival Camden. But returning to the house we experienced more abuse: “I’m a lad-ee!” mouthed a large group of men whilst chasing us towards the stairwell. I was scared.

Safe inside, Alex told me such harassment was her everyday life, but the council refused to rehouse her.

She’d tried the police, but rather than a source of protection she saw them as part of the problem; indifferent and unwilling to tackle the Bengali community who were targeting her. And there was worse. She told me she’d been badly beaten once and left unconscious by the roadside. Rather than helping her, the police arrested her for suspected prostitution; then ridiculed her for being a ‘freak’. I could scarcely believe her words, but something about Alex told you she wasn’t lying. She looked like she’d suffered.

It was a hot Bank Holiday weekend and I remained her guest for almost a week. She treated me like family: cooking me delicious pasta meals and showing me pictures of all her gorgeous transgender friends. In the day we’d be abused, but at night we went out dancing and walked home relatively unmolested in the warm night air.

We lost contact after that. Two months later I’d begun University and was preoccupied with a new life in Brighton. I’d also started to feel the sting of transition, as a paranoid obsession with ‘passing’ invested my insecurities with unprecedented new powers. I avoided anything that pointed towards me being trans. I hated myself.

In the Autumn of 2007 Alex phoned me: she wanted to visit me in Brighton. Things were getting really tough and she needed a break – she sounded desperate. I lied and told her I was busy. I wanted to see her but my transphobia easily won-out. I couldn’t have such a noticeably trans woman going in and out my front door, let alone joining her. No way.

I could tell she was disappointed, and we never really spoke again. She tried to call me once but I was too embarrassed to answer.

Last year I bumped into the girl who’d lived above her. She told me Alex had died, muttering something about a car crash and promising to tell me more next time. My betrayal haunted me.

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Me, Summer 2006.

Then last January I made a devastating discovery online: Alex hadn’t died in a car crash at all. She’d killed herself.

I learned about her suicide through Project Silverfish, a London-based group which supports trans, intersex and genderqueer people through outreach work, especially those with drug, drink and mental health problems. The project also provides guidance and access to housing, benefits, education and training. It’s a fitting tribute to a lovely woman; and much needed.

To say I feel bad is an understatement. Alex might still be alive had I offered her a safe space to fly whenever things became too much in Bethnal Green. Though I’ve changed a lot these past few years, I still can’t help feeling like a shit.

Since then I’ve been researching Alex Silverfish. I knew she DJ’d, but I’d never realised how high profile she’d been both on the London scene and worldwide. I had no idea she’d touched so many people. I should have been proud to know her.

Alex, you believed in heaven. I don’t. But if you’re up there, looking down at me, I want you to know how sorry I am. I let you down, and you deserved better. I’m sorry for being ashamed of you. I’m sorry you felt the need to take your own life.

Please forgive me.

Paris Lees

(The views expressed within this blog are those of the author, and may not reflect those of the Gender Trust)

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