“We’re Essentially Being Told That We Don’t Exist By The People That Are Meant To Be Protecting Us”: Munroe Bergdorf On Trans Issues
“We’re all talking about the wrong things,” says the model and trans activist Munroe Bergdorf. She says it resignedly, with the exhausted sigh of someone who has had these conversations – the wrong ones – far too often. We are talking on Zoom one Wednesday morning and, somehow, quite without either of us meaning to, we end up slipping into exactly one of those conversations. “But there are gender-neutral toilets everywhere!” She says with an exasperated laugh. “Have people never been on an aeroplane?”
Through her heartrending memoir Transitional, Bergdorf wants to get the conversation about trans lives back to actual trans lives. Part autobiography, part polemic, the book is a thoroughly absorbing journey through the joys and devastations of her life. “I feel like I’ve just been inside your head,” I say. “Good,” she replies. “That’s the point.” Because, of course, that is the point. How many people screaming about toilets have been inside a trans person’s head? Empathy, perhaps, is Transitional’s biggest takeaway.
“I wanted people to realise that transness is a human experience. Gender is a human experience,” she says of the book’s palpable grounding in universality. “The confines we are expected to live within are man-made, so we can transition out of them. That’s something that is for everybody, not just trans people.”
Bergdorf’s own ‘transition’ – her journey – is remarkably relatable. She depicts an idealised early childhood in the English village of Stansted Mountfitchet, the typical trappings of infancy and there are gorgeous passages about the menagerie of insects she collected. As a reader, you feel as crushed as she is when puberty seemingly destroys everything and brings with it cruel realisations about the realities of being the only mixed-race family in the village and being the only queer person of colour she knew. External forces brutally pushing their way into an internal world will become a repeated, traumatic refrain in Bergdorf’s life.
She is brilliantly erudite about the intersectionality of those forces; the misogyny at the root of so much of the violence inflicted on her, the racism, the homophobia. On the subject of governmental responsibility for this, she is unequivocal. “They are essentially advocating for genocide,” she says simply. “What else do you call it, when we’re being disenfranchised, pushed out of spaces, denied health care, denied love and dignity? If we’re essentially being told that we don’t exist by the people that are meant to be protecting us, that is going to – and is – causing people to die.”
For Bergdorf, finding her voice in this way has been as essential as shaping her true identity, yet she speaks with refreshing honesty about the unwelcome chaos activism brings to her life. “It has brought me peace and it has also taken away peace,” she admits. “For such a long time I was the only Black trans model out there, representing all of us. I look forward to the day when trans people can be hired, just for who they are, not the identity they represent. Like, I want a trans woman presenting an ordinary gardening show, you know?”
She laughs and it is a glorious invocation of the joy she has fought so hard for all these years. Even the process of writing the memoir (which took over five years and included a Covid-19 lockdown and a revelatory stay in rehab) has seen her reach a whole new place in her life – one of clarity and, as her final chapter states, purpose. “I’m a different person from when I started writing,” she says with a smile, knowing I am about to say the same thing. “Yes, I know. Another transition!”
Transitional: In One Way Or Another, We All Transition by Munroe Bergdorf (£14.99, Bloomsbury) is out now
Marie-Claire Chappet is a London-based arts and culture journalist and contributing editor at Harper’s Bazaar