You'd be right in thinking that writer, activist, academic, and musician CN Lester is no stranger to the spotlight, but they are still in mild disbelief about where their advocacy work has taken them.
With four albums, an opera, and the highly regarded book Trans Like Me on their ever-growing resume, they grew up imagining playing the Sydney Opera House as a pianist, rather than speaking on a panel as a queer icon. Nonetheless, it's clear that they take the space they've been given seriously. "The thing that makes me so excited" they tell SBS Sexuality, "is that every single person who is affected can also be someone who fights back", and they hardly seem short on punch.
Born in 1984 and with their family moving around a lot as a child, they kicked for a place to feel comfortable from early on, finding it as much on the stage as by being out. Growing up, despite the difficulty of being a genderqueer person in both classical music and the world in general, this is clearly still the case, and as we talk they fill the space with ease. We chat about their upcoming panel for the All About Women festival and their recent published work, but keep finding ourselves on tangents, segueing often into queer culture, trans academic research, and local wildlife (CN is firmly team ibis).
Their book, Trans Like Me, comprises essays on everything from trans history to tabloid journalism, and manages to sit the fence between memoir and manifesto, without quite falling into either camp (and is also just very good). It is the sort of book I wish I had owned decades ago, not just because it covers a great deal with little effort, but also because CN is so kind to their audience. On this, Lester says that they “wanted to feel like [they were] having a conversation with every single person that was reading it, and if they were coming at it only seeing me through a stereotypical lens of what trans lives are like, they wouldn’t actually be appreciating what it is [they were] trying to say."
Despite being an essayist in a sea of trans memoirs, it is still a deeply personal work, and there are moments throughout where I feel my breath catch—balancing theory and personality with a soft hand while still pulling no punches.
"My singing teacher always says, simply on a technique level, you can’t push out to reach your audience,” they share. “You have to feel like you’re allowing them right down into the depths of your guts, and I think it works on a human level as well as on a vocal technique level."
Lester is no stranger to wading into a world without a place for them, having started the UK's first Gay-Straight Alliance back in 1999, and continuing to create ground-breaking events and organisations since then. We talk about the history of the community, and the way that politics has changed, including the ways they've felt included and excluded for being genderqueer, with some people – including doctors and even other trans people – believing it to be a kind of 'trans lite'. Lester stresses that this is not how it works, noting: "that’s not how people’s lives are affected by institutional oppression". They go on to clarify that it's also not a predominant reaction, and instead they mostly get to spend their time "watching people … take care of each other and inspire each other and create something better than what they were handed,” describing the experience as “amazing”.
It's clear that All About Women has been not only accommodating but deeply engaged in having transgender people lead their own discussions, working with Lester to create a space they feel comfortable, but we still end up talking about the darker anti-trans underside of some feminisms. The way that journalism in the UK has taken a particular turn for the worse in recent years keeps coming up, and is a subject well covered in their book
Despite this, they're not too worried, and explain that these bigots are "caught in a zero sum game, that there’s nothing. They haven’t got a vision, they haven’t got an idea for a better world”. A current of infectious hope runs through their work, both explicitly in their book and advocacy, and subtly as we talk. They give off a conviction that, for all it feels like the world is sliding backwards, we are slowly making genuine progress.
I often wonder what cisgender audiences take away from my own work, and I ask the same of CN, that going into an event like Trans Like Me, what they hope rubs off on their audience. They pause for a moment, before saying: "I hope they walk away with the fact that listening to trans people is great and they should do more of it." After we laugh, the moment ferments, and I become increasingly aware of the joy of a space like Sunday's Trans Like Me panel, and even a space like this, talking as peers about a strange, strange world we've carved room in.
"I’m hoping they go away with a sense that what they might think they know might not actually be what they know" they continue, and we both find ourselves smiling. "And that the reality is far more engaging."
CN Lester is appearing at the All About Women festival’s Trans Like Me panel at the Sydney Opera House with Eddie Ayres and Jordan Raskopoulos this Sunday, and their book Trans Like Me is available from Hachette and available online).