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A Catch Up with Paris Lees

26 April 18 interview: Caroline Barry
illustrations: Alex Vine

Paris Lees has come a long way. She’s been dubbed “the voice of a generation” by ID Magazine, and this year became the first openly trans woman to feature in Vogue, for their Meet the New Suffragettes piece celebrating 100 years of women’s right to vote. She’s a journalist, presenter, and transgender rights activist, now adding to the mix with a new book due to be released this year. Not bad for a girl from Hucknall...

First of all, congratulations on your recent shoot with Vogue. How did it feel to shoot with them and what did it mean to you?
It was so amazing. It’s the real deal with Vogue. I’ve been involved with quite a few photoshoots over the years, either for myself or organising them while working for magazines, so I kind of know the drill. It’s a great way to kick off the year, to feel included, as it’s not just about me, but about where trans people are in 2018. I think to be included, as a trans woman, sends out a really strong message.

What do you see happening this year with trans rights?
ITV have a drama coming up where Anna Friel plays the mother of a trans child. People don’t realise that this could be a real game changer. We’ve had so much nonsense in the press about parents being labelled child abusers for supporting their trans kids, so I think the show will be the first time we’ve seen these people’s stories. There are parents who are supporting their kids, but we’re not hearing from them; they just want to keep their heads under the radar and get on with their lives. I really hope the conversation will move on to how we can give those kids the love, support and acceptance that I didn’t have when I was growing up.

What was life like for you, growing up in Nottingham?
It wasn’t all bad, as I had a lot of love when I was a kid. I have happy childhood memories, but a lot of it was also very traumatic, and writing my book has been really difficult as it’s involved revisiting a lot of that trauma. I wanted to be a girl, and I was bullied quite mercilessly and violently for years – both at school and by my own dad – for being queer or girly. It was tough, but I always say “I can’t do anything about that; I can’t go back and change the past.” That’s why I’m so passionate about making sure kids today are educated, and have everything they need going forward. I walk around now and I feel okay, I feel comfortable in my own skin, and I realise that I never felt safe walking around when I was a kid, ever.

What do you think the biggest preconception about trans people is?
It’s this idea that we’re not really who we say we are. I knew from a really young age. We don’t know why, just as we don’t know why some people are left handed, or gay. I see myself as a woman who was born with a physical mismatch, and I think that when people get to know a trans person, they just get it. The other one is that we’re some kind of threat. How much are we hearing about trans people in the media at the moment? We are less than 1% of the population. There isn’t any evidence that trans people are causing problems for wider society, but there’s evidence to suggest wider society does really horrific damage to trans people. So I’d like people to stop framing us as the problem. The transgender issue, if there is one, is the huge violence, discrimination and prejudice that we face.

What can we expect from your book?
It should be coming out this year. It’s long overdue. Originally it was a memoir, but now it’s got bits of my activist voice, and all my thoughts on the world, really. I want to get it out there, and I don’t want to just talk about being trans for the rest of my career. I guess I’ve had an interesting life; I don’t think there are many people who’ve been on the trajectory I’ve been on. I want people to know what it was like growing up in the nineties as a working-class, queer, trans kid from Nottingham. It’s a story that needs to be told. I’ll be able to say a lot of things in the book that I’ve not yet been able to, and hopefully people will get to know me a bit better.

What’ve been some of the biggest challenges while writing the book?
Revisiting my childhood trauma has been difficult. It’s been a process where I got to know myself a little bit better; joining up the dots, while getting upset and writing about injustice. I care about this stuff, I’ve got skin in the game. It’s the longest thing I’ve written and my ideas keep changing. The world is so different now; a lot of the things I’ve been political about are constantly evolving, and my relationships with people are as well, even since the book was commissioned. I was really angry with my dad for many years, but I’ve moved into a more forgiving position. He just wasn’t able to give me the support I needed as he had his own issues. It couldn’t be more personal.

Now that you’re London-based, what do you miss about Nottingham?
The gorgeous countryside! I’m from Hucknall, which is just on the city boundary, and on the other side there are lovely green fields and woods. I loved going for walks with the dogs, the kids, and bike rides. I miss that most.

Anything else you’d like to say?
I was really disappointed with the students chanting “we hate black people” at Nottingham Trent University recently, and disappointed to see that happened in my hometown. Some of the most open-minded, creative people I know are in Nottingham. I’ve got a lot of time for Nottingham people and I know we’re a vibrant, multicultural and diverse city. I hope I do people proud.


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