Trans role models: Janet Mock, Paris Lees, CN Lester and Luke Anderson

You may not have heard of them, but popular culture has its fair share of trans people in public life braving the slurs - living examples of what trans people can achieve.

Historically, there have always been trans people, and in the past hundred and twenty years it is easy to notice them blasting their way through popular culture – from Billy Tipton, a jazz musician from the 1930s-1970s, through Calpernia Addams, a transgender author, actress and musician from the 1990s onwards, to cultural icons such as Eddie Izzard. Even now, we know about plenty of trans people making their way onto the big stage of popular culture, with the awareness that there are probably several more remaining stealth.

If you’re not involved in the trans community you might not have heard of these people, or you might not have heard of all of them, but they’re a collection of just a few of the trans people from all ages, cultures and backgrounds, who are part of the "media glitterati" – people who are living their lives in the public eye, and using their history of transition to help others. Sometimes this is done through visibility, being open about their trans status alongside their media career. Other times, activism comes into it as well – whether this is through working with television companies to improve their trans coverage (like Paris Lees), or designing the trans program at a high school for LGBT students (like Janet Mock).

Last year, for the second time, a trans person won Big Brother in the UK – this time a trans man called Luke Anderson, last time a trans woman called Nadia Almada, who won in 2004. When Luke went into the house he didn’t mention that he had transitioned to male, and over time he chose to share his history. The courage that this took him won him many friends both inside and outside the house, and when he won Big Brother, in a nationwide vote, the viewers were saying “we stand behind him, we want him to have the prize money” – a statement of support for a trans man from a significant swathe of the population.

Janet Mock, the former staff editor of People magazine’s website, came out as trans in 2011, disclosing her history in an article in Marie Claire. This set her up as an inspirational figure for a whole new generation of younger trans people. Her career had always been relatively prominent, and as a result, seeing a beautiful, accomplished woman in a position of relative power who had a history similar to theirs was a seminal moment for many younger trans women of my acquaintance. Last year, she also began the Twitter hashtag #GirlsLikeUs, designed to empower trans women of colour, a group of people living at the challenging intersection of transphobia, misogyny, and racism.

Equally stunning, Paris Lees is a UK journalist, and winner of the LGBT positive role model award at the National Diversity Awards 2012 – following her work with Trans Media Watch – most notably persuading Channel Four to commit to trying to remove all transphobic material from broadcast. Her appearances on television have, so far, primarily been brief, but nonetheless her incredible writing skill and untouchable confidence have won her quite a cult following, and in her newer positions of Editor (and founder) of META magazine, a glossy magazine aimed at the trans community, and channel four consultant, as well as her columns in Gay Times and Diva, she is the absolute definition of a rising star.

Finally, the unmatchable CN Lester. CN is a classically trained singer, who navigates the music world as an out genderqueer pianist and singer. Finding people who identify as genderqueer and are able to be open about that in every part of their life is rare, due to the oppressive and binarist culture in which we live, and finding one in popular culture would be expected to be even harder, but in reality CN has managed to combine their identity and their career remarkably, and has just released their first classical album – following their debut indie album in 2012.

Celebrities who try to make the world a better place are often lauded for that, and these people are certainly doing so – whether through the direct activism of Paris and Janet, or the openness about their history and identities, despite the costs and risks this could impose, of CN and Luke. By being out in popular culture, you will always be labelled “the trans one”. Slurs will be levelled at you the second you misstep, or simply because someone dislikes you. These four people have made the decision that that risk is worth it, to continue their careers, and to place their lives out there as examples of what trans people can achieve.
To all the people mentioned, and to all the trans people who live their lives with that level of honesty, integrity, and confidence - you are role models.

Matthew Reuben is a disability and trans rights activist, and a languages student.

Janet Mock, a journalist who came out as trans in 2011. Photograph: Getty Images

Matthew Reuben is a disability and trans rights activist, and a languages student.

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue