With a book like Trans Like Me on shelves around the world, you'd think CN Lester would be more accustomed to being seen as a genderqueer icon, but they're still surprised at being asked to speak at the Sydney Opera House.
Writer, opera singer, and trailblazing transgender advocate, Lester has made a career and a life out of kicking out the walls that said they were too much or not enough, proving their critics wrong in the process. Despite a book, an opera, several studio albums and a formidable performance background under their belt, in person and on stage they emanate a down-to-earth kindness, like they're the one who’s lucky that we've let them in, and not the other way around.
While in town for the packed out Trans Like Me panel at the All About Women festival earlier this year, CN sat down with SBS to talk about patriarchy, staying sane, and how they write the politics of hope.
SBS: You were out here for the All About Women festival, and it’s really cool that the festival has an all-transgender panel, but how have you found navigating not being lumped into the category of woman?
CN Lester: The person who runs All About Women has been incredible and they approached me and asked if I could come and talk on my own and I said I’d love to come and talk, but I don’t actually think it’s appropriate to put one single trans person on the bill because you know, we are a community with so many different ways of being. For me as well, if it’s me on my own under the auspice of All About Women, I feel incredibly uncomfortable, whereas a panel of a group of people of various different gender expressions and saying “this is how we can all contribute to feminism” felt really empowering. It felt more illustrative and more emblematic of how trans feminism feels to me, and trans feminism is about breaking down this idea of oppositional feminism, and this very binary, gendered feminism which doesn’t work for me, and it doesn’t work for a lot of people on the ground, and I think if we accept that gender is plural, which I hope we do, we have to accept that our feminisms have to encompass that, because those are the lives we’re living. I really love the fact that the space is being made that feminism can also be for other people, particularly minority genders that are experiencing misogyny, even if we may not be women, we’re still getting a shitload of oppression from the misogynistic world.
Exactly, the patriarchy still affects all of us.
That’s the one, yeah. You know, it’s a big broad sword and it has a lot of oppression for everybody. I sort of discussed it a little bit in the book but the thing that makes me so excited is that every single person who is affected can also be someone who fights back.
One thing I loved about your book was that, especially towards the end, it really was full of hope, and I feel like a lot of trans books really don’t deal in the currency of hope. What part does that idea of hope play in your politics?
I got given Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning by my therapist, in which he sort of unpacks Nietzsche's idea of how you can live through almost anything as long as you have a reason why, he called it tragic optimism. So it’s an acceptance of the fact that life is frequently very, very terrible, but if there is something you can hold onto, some sense of joy, some sense of love, some connection between people, it can allow you to keep going. I feel incredibly privileged that even as we do watch our trans community suffer, and it’s appalling, you watch people in extremes coming together to take care of each other and inspire each other and create something better than what they were handed and that’s amazing.
That empathetic shift between saying “that’s all I see because of my very narrow framework” to “that’s who you are because my framework is too narrow and I want to open it up more” feels like one of the most incredible shifts we can make.
I think it’s the difference between coming out and inviting in, and inviting people into our multiple layers is a beautiful way of approaching it.
Absolutely, I think that’s one of the reasons why I run Transpose [A trans-lead art and cabaret night], because you know one of the things we never wanted to do is like *CN sings* “come and see our pain”, a song and dance, because we assumed that our audiences would be smarter than that and that they’d come and approach us on our terms because we were inviting them in.
In Trans Like Me, I really enjoyed how you engaged with the fact that the trans community is messy and your experiences were strictly your own. Where was that balance between writing about yourself but trying to distance yourself from the world of trans memoir in the process?
Well I guess that’s the thing, for me it’s not a memoir, and I think it’s very interesting where we draw the line with life writing and memoir. There’s that awareness that you don’t have a lot of privacy necessarily as a trans person and also as a performer, you get up and you spill your guts on stage. I know, for me it’s a collection of essays and some of those have elements of life writing simply because it was trying to provide enough insight into who I am that they would walk away going “I am listening to you, CN”, rather than the random author that I have constructed in my head, but at the same point it’s not my life story.
It’s trying to take elements that I’m comfortable with without subsuming myself into a genre that I don’t feel very comfortable with or feel like I have anything to add.
You did an interview back in 2011 while you were still in the research stage of the book and talked about how you were trying to create a trans manifesto. Did that label stick around?
It definitely stuck in the back of my head. I tried to get the end of my book to address the fact of how impossible it would be to write. Like I think there’s that aspect of you are all the ages you’ve ever been, always still, and I remember being 14 and reading the communist manifesto and being like “this sounds great, this would make everything really easy, let’s just write manifestos” and then getting a little bit older and thinking “oh no, you actually have to implement things, they actually have to work, you can’t just write 100 pages and call it a day”. So there is that adult reasoning, and there is still that little 14-year-old going “write some slogans”
I think by bringing it out into the light and engaging with it means I can avoid some of those pitfalls, but that’s the fear of writing and the fear of publishing. I think trying to think of it as a fixed line in the sand rather than an ongoing cultural debate has made me feel better about it, and better about engaging. Yeah, I have a personal manifesto for how people should be and it’s one that changes, but it’s pretty much based on “don’t be an arsehole” and listen to people first, and then I tried to stretch it into a book.
I really like that you dive into trans history so much in the book, and I guess it goes back into the whole idea of “it isn’t a new thing”, and diving into like Magnus Hirschfield in Germany, Lili Elbe, all these people... There’s a lot of trans history in Australia but it often goes unrecorded, for a range of reasons. Was that a challenge you came up against while researching?
I think there is that problem where our history isn’t recorded, we can find ourselves having conversations where we are erasing ourselves, not because we intend to but because we simply haven’t been informed of our own past. It’s a part of a broader movement of overthrowing our concept of history as singular and top down, and it makes me feel really excited that we’re starting to approach a historical record with a humility of our own approaches. You know, I just honestly, from everything I’ve seen, I don’t understand how anyone could think that gender has just been binary. It just seems like such a new concept. Like obviously gendered oppression isn’t a new concept, like humans have been really good at that, but it’s interesting how they got creative at things too, and you still find these joyful accounts.
I think you find that even now, there’s still a sense of trans people being sad a lot, or having a really hard time, and sometimes it’s just nice to show that we’re actually out here having fun, you know, we get to publish books and speak at the Opera House about how great we are.
I definitely know that my sense of possibilities just exploded when I found things like Livejournal feeds, where people were putting up their transition photographs, and like ‘here’s a picture of me out with my friends and having a good time’, that was the real change you know.
‘Here’s me smiling’!
Yes! Exactly, wow! Now I’m going to go out and have a good time with my friends.
Your book really engages with queer politics, queer culture and news, and there’s just so much crap in the world right now. How do you process and filter that while staying on top of it?
I’ve started to get better at it. Once Trump was elected I was getting to the point where I was on Twitter all day long, and I wasn’t doing anything, I was lying on the couch, again, that overwhelming sense of not knowing how to proceed. And I’m trying to get better at just marking out days, like some days if I’m going to go online it has to be for research, not just to sit and spiral. You know, if I’m going to be reading a really transphobic article - why? Is it so I can do a response, is it so I can keep up to date with who’s publishing what, is it so I can sort of counteract in a different way, but I think there’s a really lovely piece of advice I got given which was “If you are being negatively impacted, don’t engage unless there’s something you can do about it”. So, if you are going to be reading about human rights abuses, and we should be, are you a member of something like Amnesty International, and can you dash off a quick email to remind your local politician that they really ought to be doing something about it.
The UK press is having a moment. It’s having a real moment! And none of it is to do with the real world, it’s like watching people’s particular bogeymen, and their monster under the bed is their idea of this trans person who’s not really real, she’s just this scary figure that they’ve made up, so you know. But we’re also doing some really good stuff as well, it doesn’t always have the money, but I’m trying to hold onto the good stuff and just think about what endures and what gets used as fish and chip wrapping the next day.
Like people doing transphobic shit is something that happens every single day, and the incredible thing is you already know what is happening, you don’t have to listen to the same argument over and over again. Like great, you either think that I’m lying or that I’m delusional, if you’re not going to give me anything new I don’t have to listen to you.One thing I wish I could just give them a little tip is that we don’t owe our abusers anything. Not our time, not our feelings, nothing. They haven’t got anything to add and it is just abuse. And if you are in a position to walk away, which so often we are not, just get out of there. And more pictures of puppies.
Smiling trans people and puppies.
Maybe combine the two.
You’ve been in this space of research and activism for a long time now. What things have you noticed changing and shifting in that time?
The thing which I found really frustrating is the way that people who are outside of a gender binary, the way that the bounds of what is trans keep getting drawn against people like that. Coming out to myself in like 1999, and then in 2001, transgender was this catch all term being used to include everyone, and to explain that we have multiple ways for expressing ourselves, and in some ways I really like the word transsexual still, there are lots of different ways of describing my experience and I love having the freedom to do that, having those words as adjectives rather than discrete categories. And then I started seeing people saying that real transgender people are x, y and z, and you are outside of it, and I started seeing trans being used as a descriptor but no, you people are outside of it, and then trans with an asterisk, but you’re outside of it again, and it does distress me, particularly when I meet people who say “well, I don’t feel trans enough to be trans”. I think that is why that I’m really keen on saying that I’m trans, or I’m transgender, which is partially to stop that particular media narrative that if you are a non binary or agender or genderqueer people person that you’re almost trans lite?
I think there is a huge amount of work being down to keep categories broad, so people can exist at different places at different points in their lives, I get sad when we seem to be repeating the same mistakes over and over again, and I do meet kids who had it easier than me, and I had it so much easier than my friends who are in their 60s and 70s, and my life must look like a walk in the park to those people, but it doesn’t mean that I’m not valid, it doesn’t mean that 13 year olds working out who they are on Tumblr aren’t valid.
Everyone tries to gatekeep and they do a really good job of it, I’m not going to deny that, but in the words of a friend who was doing a training course the other day, “If you know where to kick, don’t kick against the wall, because that will just bust your foot, kick against the door where you can get through and actually start doing something”. I just loved that. Always find the door.