Juliet Jacques’ memoir Trans is not a comfortable read – nothing this honest could be

Trans challenges us all, no matter what our gender.

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Since 1999, people with gender dysphoria – a condition defined as distress or discomfort experienced because of a mismatch between biological sex and gender identity – have been able to apply for NHS treatment up to and including surgical reassignment. The idea of mutable sexual identity is now officially “accepted”. And as night follows day, so sensation has been a primary media reaction to such stories – whether from outright prejudice, or the feminist argument that transgenderism is an artificial state, supported by a medical system that reinforces stereotypical polarities.

This fraught history only makes Trans a braver book, even though its ambition is to make such a compliment unnecessary. For the moment, Juliet Jacques stands on the front line, and her book, part memoir and part polemic, charts her unsteady progress from male to female; from Morrissey-obsessed schoolboy wearing eyeliner to transgender spokesperson and author of widely read blogs for the Guardian and the New Statesman.

Trans addresses multiple dilemmas: perhaps most subtly, the notion of lives reduced to pathology. By virtue of what they “have”, or “have not” got, transgendered people become case histories, curious objects. The exquisite physical beauty of personhood has, in their case, been distilled to exactly what they seek to challenge – a reductive definition of gender which relies on external appearance.

Critics say they want it both ways. The transgendered wish to be treated as ordinary people and for other people to disregard their gender. Yet they are not “ordinary” to the rest of “us”, and so they adopt a defensive persona to deal with this paradox.

As it alternates between cultural commentary and memoir, Trans adeptly cites historical precedents: not only books such as Jan Morris’s Conundrum (1974), a moving account of Morris’s own journey from male to female through surgery at a clinic in Morocco, but also the work of the early-20th-century German sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld, who was among the first to take the subject seriously. His Sexual History of the First World War (1930) – with which I once spent an eye-opening afternoon in the old British Library, when the volume had to be retrieved from a locked cabinet of restricted works – was the product of advertisements place in newspapers around the world, appealing for accounts of sexual experiences during the war.

Hirschfeld was deluged. He received reports of nudist and drug clubs that sprang up in response to the Armageddon in progress; an entirely new culture seemed to emerge. In one wonderful and poignant anecdote, he tells of how transvestites marched to the trenches with ballgowns in their backpacks.

Hirschfeld, a Jew, became an inevitable victim of the Nazi state. His research institute in Berlin was raided and its documents destroyed. Such suppression seems a far cry from our enlightened age. Yet as Amnesty International recently pointed out, no fewer than 19 European countries, including Belgium, France, Italy and Norway, require transgender people to undergo ­genital removal surgery and sterilisation before they are allowed legally to change gender – a situation that has echoes of old fascist horrors undertaken, sometimes in those same countries.

Almost a century after Hirschfeld began his research, Juliet Jacques came to maturity under the oppressive shadow of Section 28. One of the salutary effects of reading her memoir is to realise how the liberalisations of the 1960s and 1970s were threatened by government policy in the UK in the 1980s. My generation got its transgender education from David Bowie, Lou Reed, John Waters and punk. It is amazing to recall how straight men wore “effeminate” fashion in the 1970s; gender really did seem to be a matter of degrees. (One boy in the class above me at school wore nail varnish and platform boots; he’s now a colonel in the British army.) Indeed, a recent poll by YouGov appears to show that the repeal of Section 28 in 2003 has liberated a new generation: 23 per cent of people would not describe themselves as heterosexual, a figure that rises to an astonishing 49 per cent of 18-to-24-year-olds. There is even a new addition to the rainbow acronym – LGBTQ, the last letter standing for “questioning”. The world is changing again.

Jacques may have been caught in between these two eras – a victim of the fallout from the twin threats of Thatcherism and Aids – but where she did benefit was in having access to the internet, which provided an entirely new source of information and inspiration, and became the medium from which her book was born. The result is a genuinely compelling work. It does not aspire to Jan Morris’s poetics; rather, it is a gritty record of a struggle to assertion. At some points it is unbearably sad. Perhaps the nadir is not Jacques’s putative suicide note, nor any of the scenes in which she is reduced to tears by transphobic insults. Rather, it is when she looks down at her own pre-surgery body with despair.

It seems impossible for a non-gender-challenged person to imagine that sensation. But for Jacques it is not a question of the “wrong body”; it is the “wrong society”. She defines her dilemma as “relaunching the symbiotic relationship between my body and mind from a starting point that felt right”. In this context, “trans” stands not for transsexual or transgender, but transition: one that is as much political and philosophical as it is sexual. Post-feminism, post-gay rights, transgenderism is the new frontier. But does it perpetuate the notion of strictly delineated gender, as some feminists argue? The questions raised by this book spin off into a dizzying alternative universe of sexuality and gender (in which the even more vexed notion of transracialism is also starting to circulate).

What does the apparently burgeoning fluidity of sexual identity, as per that YouGov poll, suggest about the way culture affects our expectations? At what point do we become victims of social attitudes, as opposed to “triumphing” over them? How far is gender dysphoria itself an elective process? Can we create our own identities, independently of social constraints? If left on some desert island from birth, would we choose to be male or female, gay or straight, white or black, or slip in between these states, in the way we may all do, in our interior lives?

For Jacques, the right to bear the female pronoun would be hard won. The process begins in the streets of suburban Surrey. As a teenager, Jacques finds solace in post-punk music, alternative cinema and radical art, even as her love of football binds her to her laddish peers. In many ways, hers is an ordinary rebellion; the details of what she wears and what bands she likes anchor Trans in a necessary and even witty reality. But after university in Manchester and forays into indie music, she finds herself working, fitfully, for the NHS, moving to Brighton in the hope of finding a more empathetic environment in which to become – well, she is not quite sure what. Well-meaning people assume that she’s a gay man. In pubs, predatory prowlers grab at her false breasts and her crotch and can’t understand why she isn’t up for it.

Even in the supposedly liberated streets of Brighton, Jacques’s appearance in female clothing elicits daily abuse – especially in the summer, when her make-up starts to run. With the help of sympathetic friends, she starts to move towards transition. In order to “deserve” surgery, she must live as a woman, to the extent of changing her name by deed poll. She virtually has to audition for the hormones. Soon they take effect. She is delighted to feel her hips broaden and her breasts swell.

It is as if another person were emerging from within. In this subtle segue, which has taken a lifetime to achieve, the surgery with which Trans both begins and ends is almost incidental, for all that it supplies the book with its dramatic momentum. At 31 years old, Jacques finds her identity, and finds her voice, too. She becomes the “go-to” transgendered media figure. Paradoxically, this has its own side effect of creating an internal tension between the public and the private which sends her back to psychotherapy. (At a party, Evan Davis advises her, “Don’t go into the media if you don’t want to be typecast.”)

It seems never-ending, this challenge to the self. Trans is not a comfortable read; nothing this honest could be. I found myself physically and mentally confronted by it. Its bare, unadorned language is sometimes too disturbing, on a psychic level, to read in anything other than short bursts. Yet what Jacques herself seeks is no more nor less than an equilibrium. She finds it, in the catharsis of this remarkable account. Trans challenges us all, no matter what our gender or sexuality. Ultimately, it makes us look at ourselves, and wonder what price we pay for the identities we assume, or that we have thrust upon us.

Trans: a Memoir by Juliet Jacques is published by Verso, 320pp, £16.99. Philip Hoare’s latest book is “The Sea Inside” (Fourth Estate)

Philip Hoare’s books include Wilde’s Last Stand, England’s Lost Eden, and Spike IslandLeviathan or, The Whale won the Samuel Johnson Prize for 2009, and The Sea Inside was published in 2013. He is professor of creative writing at the University of Southampton, and co-curator of the Moby-Dick Big Read. His website is www.philiphoare.co.uk, and he is on Twitter @philipwhale.

This article appears in the 24 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Revenge of the Left