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.