Juliet Jacques will be teaching a course focused on writing, fiction and memoir. Here we share a piece that was originally printed in the Out and About exhibition zine, where she writes about the impact Transfabulous had on her life.
The first thing I ever saw of the Transfabulous festival was its poster. Not ‘IRL’, as I wasn’t living in London, but on the front of their website. It couldn’t have been better targeted at me: a gender-queered version of that ubiquitous image of Che Guevara, in blue eyeshadow and dark lipstick and a beret with the transgender symbol, sprung out from the red background, below the slogan: ‘Viva la trans revolution!’ The poster alone would deserve its place in an archive such as the Bishopsgate’s for its design, which was sleek, striking and funny. The events it promoted were well worthy of it: a brilliantly curated celebration of Britain’s trans and non-binary artists and performers, featuring guest appearances from North American legends such as Kate Bornstein and Ignacio Rivera, and a wealth of workshops and activities designed to bring the trans community together, and bring the best out of us.
Sadly, I saw that poster a week too late for the 2007 edition, and hadn’t known about the regular fundraisers held in London, advertised on the flyers in the Bishopsgate archive, but I made sure I was at the third and final festival in 2008, travelling up from Brighton. Jason Elvis Barker and Serge Nicholson had founded Transfabulous in response to the Gender Recognition Act 2004, a landmark piece of legislation that allowed people to self-define as ‘male’ or ‘female’, but nothing between or beyond. Like many trans and non-binary artists and writers, they were inspired by Sandy Stone’s ‘post-transsexual’ imperative for people to explore space between genders in their creative work, and the first act I saw at Transfabulous had the same humorous radicalism as the poster. This was Barker’s Menstrual Cycle, in which he came onstage riding a bike and dressed as a giant uterus, talking about wanting to have children as a trans man and so stopping his testosterone intake, and the social and physical complexities that ensued. “I’m going to talk about what it’s like to use a men’s changing room when you don’t have a penis”, said Barker as soon as he stopped cycling, and immediately, I knew I was in a space where no discussion of our bodies and the struggles that came with them was off-limits.
That feeling was confirmed by the next performance. Dancer by Ignacio Rivera explored the complexities of being a “butch dyke” stuck in Hawaii, who danced for tourists to survive while they worked out their gender and sexuality, and how to deal with racism as well as transphobia and homophobia. Rivera shared their own learning, and the wisdom of Lola, a trans woman who ‘opened up a new language’ of identities, explaining how Christian missionaries oppressed the Māhū – the indigenous Hawaiian third gender community. Rivera refused to pick a label, leaving this new world of possibilities open. Really, what I learned from Transfabulous was not the importance of fixing your own identity, but the usefulness of telling stories, within our own community and outside of it.
The Border Fuckers’ Cabaret, written and presented by Jet Moon and presented by the Queer Belgrade Collective, closed the festival, and was revelatory. There was a monologue about what happened when the far right attacked the first ever Belgrade Pride in 2001, and the anti-fascists who demonstrated told the queer activists to put down their rainbow flags for fear of alienating people; another about selling cigarettes on Brick Lane as a migrant in the 1990s, dressed as a boy because the hyper-macho traders wouldn’t let girls sell anything there; and a striking piece by D., who had dug up mass graves from the Srebenica massacre of 1995 to help identify the bodies, raising questions about what could be ascertained about people’s lives from their remains alone. The last performance, by Anđela and Josephine, was a beautiful reflection on their journeys through gender, concluding that ‘Transition is something wonderful, magical, and at the same time it’s terribly complicated, hard, emotionally exhausting.’
Nine months later, back in Brighton, I began my own transition. Soon, I felt that the storytelling techniques I’d seen at Transfabulous could be useful in explaining trans issues to a cisgender audience, and countering widespread transphobia in the media, and in wider society. I became part of a wave of trans writers who all had the same idea in the early 2010s – that some of us at least needed to break out of the underground and work within mainstream media. I wrote a transition blog for the Guardian, and then a memoir, both of which talked about how important Transfabulous had been; others featured in documentaries and sitcoms, or presented TV shows; some took detailed critiques of institutional transphobia to the Leveson Inquiry, or Parliament. For a few years, at least, it seemed like we were making progress.
Seeing the flyers for the parties for trans people and their friends induces a little melancholy in me now: I genuinely wonder if my life might have been different if I’d found this community earlier, and I miss the anarchic spirit of that underground performance scene. Let’s not get too wistful, though: that performance scene still exists in places such as the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, even if Transfabulous wound up after 2008, I just don’t spend so much time with it now because I no longer need it to help me explore my gender, but younger people still do, and are creatively exploring an ever-wider range of identities. Given the frenzied pushback against trans and non-binary rights and representation in Britain’s mainstream media after those few, brief years of inclusion, these underground spaces remain as vital as ever – every generation should have its own Transfabulous, there to provide joy and inspiration, or just sanity and sanctuary, in a world determined to close the doors that the festival encouraged us to break open.
Juliet Jacques is a writer and filmmaker based in London. She has published three books, including Trans: A Memoir (Verso, 2015) and a short story collection, Variations (Influx Press, 2021). Her essays, criticism and journalism have appeared in many publications, from The London Review of Books to Tribune, and her short films have screened in galleries and festivals worldwide. On Saturday 18 June, Juliet will be teaching the Writing, Fiction and Memoir course at the Institute.