We’ve also got some great ideas in our toolkit for shining a light on the T in LGBT this month and beyond, and we’ve put together some recommendations for great resources which you can share with your friends, family and colleagues long after February is over.
Meet the author and illustrator of a joyful, heart-warming book celebrating the power of individuality
Interview by Bex Shorunke
LGBT History Month might be drawing to a close but we know we should be learning about and celebrating queer identities year-round, so if you have a little person in your life why not gift them The Spectacular Suit?
This joyful and heartwarming book follows Frankie, who, as her birthday party approaches, is desperately trying to find the perfect outfit to wear.
The Spectacular Suit explores gender identity and the power of individuality, as author Kat Patrick (they/them) and illustrator Hayley Wells (they/them) draw inspiration from their own real-life experiences.
We had a chat with Kat and Hayley to find out a bit more about them, the importance of exploration and what LGBT History Month means to them.
What inspired The Spectacular Suit?
Kat: My own childhood! I was quietly obsessed with suits when I was younger, so I thought I would finally create something that small me would have loved to stomp about in.
What is it about Frankie’s story that resonates with you particularly?
Kat: The willingness of the family to help out and the trust they show in Frankie’s desire. Although it’s not something they can directly understand, they are willing to make themselves vulnerable in the process. It can be scary not knowing precisely what your child (or any loved one) is going through but rather than try and change, or excavate, or question feelings that are different from your own, you can choose to listen and learn.
Hayley: I have never really felt like a girl, but I knew for sure that I wasn’t a boy. So although “girl” didn’t feel like a good identifier, I begrudgingly accepted it for a long time because I didn’t know there was an alternative. What’s really beautiful about this story is that Frankie is able to dream another option for herself.
Queer people have always had to write our own rules and imagine authentic, joyful futures for ourselves, so it is nice to see that reflected in this book. I hope it makes young queer readers feel empowered and hopeful. We refer to Frankie with she/her pronouns in the text, but at no point do we state that she is cis, trans or non-binary. She is simply exploring in the way that kids naturally do. And I hope that openness allows people of all genders to connect with the story in some way.
Why do you think it’s so important for gender identity to be explored in the spaces that young people are in?
Kat: There are much smarter people than me who could answer this more articulately! I can speak to it on a personal level – very basically, I would have come into myself a lot faster had there been less pressure on being somebody I wasn’t. I didn’t have the skills to interpret what those feelings meant when I was a kid, so for a long time they manifested in damaging ways. [I thought] there was something horribly wrong with me, that I was somehow broken. Once I’d figured it out – as an adult – I discovered what an absolute bloody joy it could be. The sooner you can experience the joy, the better.
This is your first picture book. How did you find drawing it? What was the process like?
Hayley: The book was challenging to make, not so much because of the content but because of what life threw at us on the way. There was, of course, the pandemic to contend with, but I also became seriously ill part way through making the artwork. So I had to adapt my process and work on an iPad from my bed. Fortunately the team at Scribble were incredibly supportive, kind and patient during that time. I’m especially grateful to them for helping the book become what it is.
As queer people, how have you found navigating the arts and literature scene?
Kat: I’ve been incredibly lucky – working with people I love, who are committed to seeing change at all levels of the industry. With this new book, it’s a little more daunting than usual. Being in the public eye as a trans person comes with its own huge stresses, and it can be difficult to have faith in the UK media especially – a place where our lives seem to be constantly up for debate.
Hayley: It is tricky at times but I have had positive experiences too. Sometimes people contact me because they’re looking for “women illustrators” and I have to explain that I’m non-binary – in some cases I have lost work and in others it has led to lovely, exciting projects where my identity is seen and respected. Although it doesn’t happen often, I have been publicly misgendered which takes quite a bit of emotional labour to correct. Generally people do seem to be taking things more seriously but there is still work to be done.
Who are some of the queer illustrators and artists you really admire?
Hayley: I read a lot of graphic novels and especially love those by Alison Bechdel and Tillie Walden. Maia Kobabe’s Genderqueer is an outstanding graphic memoir that resonates with me on a very personal level and Kate Charlesworth’s Sensible Footwear: A Girl’s Guide brilliantly documents queer history in the UK – I’m excited to see what both of them make next!
Why does LGBT History Month matter to you?
Kat: It’s a time to honour and celebrate.
Hayley: LGBT History Month helps me to connect with my community and pay respect to the activists and artists who have come before us. It is also an important time to reflect on the various struggles our community still faces and to uplift those who are marginalised in other ways, too.
Do you have any words of wisdom to share with budding illustrators wanting to use art to tell queer stories?
Hayley: Sharing your authentic self with the world is an empowering, liberating act so don’t be afraid to embrace yourself and your creativity. Nobody can tell your story better than you can.
Want to hear more from Kat and Hayley? Follow us on Instagram and tune in for a special IG Live on Tuesday 15 March at 6pm to celebrate the publication of The Spectacular Suit.
To mark LGBT History Month, author and academic Zoë Playdon talks to Mermaids about her book, The Hidden Case Of Ewan Forbes, and Ewan’s impact on the lives of trans people today
Interview by Carrie Lyell
Described by The Bookseller as “as significant to the trans experience as Oscar Wilde is to gay men”, the case of Ewan Forbes is one we should all know about. And yet many of you reading this may never have heard of him. This LGBT History Month, Zoë Playdon, author of an “enthralling and explosive” book about Ewan, tells us why.
For those who haven’t read your book, who is Ewan Forbes and why is his story important?
Born in 1912 to an aristocratic Scots family, Ewan received affirmative medical care from European doctors – he was a guinea pig for early preparations of testosterone – and avoided going through the wrong puberty.
In 1952, he corrected his birth certificate, as trans people could in those days, married, and lived happily until 1965 when a cousin challenged him for the inheritance of a male-line primogeniture baronetcy on the grounds that Ewan wasn’t “a real man”.
Although Ewan won the ensuing court case, he created a constitutional crisis, for the Crown was governed by primogeniture. If a trans man could become a baronet, he could become King, and security of succession and the political stability associated with that were threatened.
The establishment backlash from Ewan’s case removed trans people’s civil liberties, condemned them to a brutal NHS regime that included compulsory sterilisation, and exposed them to systematic abuse by the media. It precipitated a period of transphobia so extreme that it meets the formal definition of genocide.
Today, few people are aware that until the 1960s, trans people self-identified, accessed affirmative medical care, corrected their birth certificates, and lived in complete equality. Ewan’s case changed that, damaged the lives of a generation of trans people, and left an inheritance of systemic transphobia.
What first sparked your interest in this case, and in trans history more generally?
In February 1996 I was tipped off by Terrence Walton, the solicitor of the late April Ashley, that there was a hidden trans legal case. He said that everyone blamed him and April for trans people being unable to correct their birth certificates, but there was another, earlier case that had removed that right.
Before they went into court, the Judge, Lord Ormrod, had shown Terrence and April this case, told them they were not allowed to refer to it, that everyone who knew about it was sworn to secrecy, which now included them, and that all records of it had been removed from the public eye because “There are some interests it is more important to protect than the rights of individuals”.
I spoke to Mark Rees and Stephen Whittle, founder and leader of the trans campaigning group Press For Change, and we felt it had to be an aristocratic trans man and a primogeniture title. Mark remembered Ewan Forbes, Stephen faxed me Ewan’s obituary, and I began to look for his case, initially to eliminate it as a possibility.
Ewan’s case… damaged the lives of a generation of trans people and left an inheritance of systemic transphobia”
But wherever I looked, Ewan wasn’t there: not in the University of London Law Library, nor the Signet Library in Edinburgh, or the Scottish Public Records Office. He just didn’t appear in any of the indexes, files, or catalogues where he should have been.
I telephoned the Advocate General (head of law in Scotland) and the Rolls of the Baronetcy: they told me to write and didn’t answer my letters. Dr Lynne Jones MP, my co-founder of the Parliamentary Forum on Gender Identity, wrote to the Advocate General and he replied saying he knew the case but would not tell her anything about it.
In the end it took two years and the direct intervention of the Home Secretary for the hidden case of Ewan Forbes to be revealed.
You started looking into Ewan’s story 26 years ago. Did you have any idea then that it would become a book?
No, I had no idea at all. I only glanced at the case papers when they finally arrived, because in May 1996 our legal team won a landmark case in the European Court of Justice – P v S and Cornwall County Council – which rewrote human rights law internationally and restored employment rights to trans people.
It was then a very active time, supporting government departments to improve trans people’s experiences of education, prisons, and healthcare, and trying to moderate some of the worst elements of the Gender Recognition Act 2004. Apart from having it at the back of my mind that primogeniture played a part in trans exclusion, I didn’t think about Ewan until 2014.
I’d wrongly assumed that the primogeniture issue was over when the Succession to the Crown Act 2013 removed it from the monarchy and expected trans equality automatically to improve. But it didn’t, and I began to wonder just what had happened in Ewan’s case.
I dug the papers out, subjected them to a forensic analysis, worked backwards to see what had led to Ewan’s case and then forwards to trace its consequences. I was very shocked by what I found and felt it was crucial that this history should be known.
Your book has been very well received. But how did you feel about the Guardian’s criticism of using the term “TERF” and The Times dismissing it as a “campaigner’s book”?
It’s always hard to know how far reviewers have read the material they’re reviewing, and in the book I do explain at some length why I have used the term “terf” (in lower case specifically to avoid the negative connotations sometimes associated with capitalisation).
It is a sociological term, coined in 2008 to distinguish a splinter group opposing trans equality, from mainstream radical feminism which has a trans-affirmative history. I also describe its origins, in a 1970s Stepford Wivesconspiracy theory that male doctors were replacing “real women” with “artificial women”, and more recently in Creationist ideology which sees trans people as contrary to God’s will.
Coherent terminology is important when you’re writing history, especially tracing a consistent ideology that renames itself, so I use “terf” to maintain academic continuity.
I feel that it is quite wrong to use the term as a slur: it needs to be reserved for defining groups that wish to exclude trans people from equality and justify their views by appealing to a version of radical feminism based on conspiracy theory or creationist ideology.
The Times review was really rather odd: it said reading my description of Highland dancing (one sentence on page 39 of the book) was “an ordeal”, and called intersex conditions “dubious science” and me a “cursed genius”. So it was difficult to take it seriously, complimentary though it was in other ways.
As I teach my students, history is not a neutral pursuit. It always provides a critical perspective, reflecting the standpoint of its writer, which in my case is a commitment to human rights.
Like Ewan’s, so many LGBTQIA+ histories have been hidden, erased, or were never recorded in the first place. What impact does that have on our present?
The most immediately damaging effect, I think, is that it has enabled almost two years of moral panic about trans equality. It’s difficult not to associate this with Boris Johnson’s actions – shelving Theresa May’s LGBT Action Plan, side-lining GRA reform, delaying action on conversion practices – so that it seems as though he is weaponising trans issues as a political diversion from the UK’s massive post-Brexit and Covid problems.
But in the larger historical span, trans erasure raises the question of whether and how we can talk about trans history, while at the same time highlighting the crucial importance of doing so. As the decolonisation project indicates, we can’t make sense of our present if we don’t understand our past, so this is not just a concern for trans communities but for everyone: none of us are equal until we are all equal.
Why do you think it’s important to tell our stories now?
Stories are such powerful things: they open audiences to imaginative sympathy and emotional engagement, to feeling for the protagonist as for themselves. And once that link has been made, there is an increased willingness to listen to the nuts and bolts of equality and support change.
But that also raises the questions of what stories should be told? Historically, the staple of trans narrative has been confessional, often presented as trans apologia, like Lili Elbe’s Man Into Woman. It is a format that has been shaped and sanctified by cis discourse, positioning trans people as supplicants, their lives ordered into a “before and after” sequence, fearful and grateful and dependent.
I think it is crucially important to find ways of breaking that mould. Roz Kaveney did it in the 1980s with Tiny Pieces Of Skull, but no-one would publish it until 2015, Paris Lees does it in What It Feels Like For A Girl, and Jordy Rosenberg in Confessions Of The Fox. I’m looking forward to stories from people who recognise that the emotions of shame and apology belong to transphobes, not trans communities.
You’ve spent 30 years campaigning for change. Do you feel a sense that we’re fighting the same battles over and over again?
Not the same battles, but certainly the same fixed ideologies, although now they operate rather differently. Twenty years ago, opposition to trans equality came from two separate directions: religious fundamentalists whose ideology positioned being trans as contrary to God’s will; and so-called terfs who positioned trans people as sexual predators, claiming their use of single sex spaces, especially bathrooms, was a threat to cis people.
It was easy to recognise that extreme religious fundamentalists operated on beliefs that they were entitled to hold but not to impose, and that Home Office inquiries could find no instance where trans use of single sex space had proved a problem.
Establishing and communicating the facts about trans experience has become much more difficult than it was 20 years ago”
Now, though, a well-funded, sophisticated anti-trans campaign has conjoined alt-right Christian evangelism with conspiracy theory and ethnonationalism, operating through social media to manufacture doubt and spread misinformation. These are the post-truth, fake news perpetrators in full swing, where any unsupported assertion, no matter how ridiculous, is repeated as “fact”. And their nonsense is spread so assertively that it may even be reported as true by respectable media outlets such as the BBC or The Times.
For example, a Twitter campaign against my book claimed that Ewan wasn’t trans, his case wasn’t hidden, and it couldn’t have been introduced to April Ashley’s hearing. All untrue, but they were so insistent they got first The Timesto write an article about it – I was given an hour’s deadline to respond to the journalist’s questions – and then the Times Literary Supplement, which at least had the courtesy to publish my first reply, though not my second.
More significantly, fake news has ended up creating a culture in which great harm is done, such as the preliminary ruling in Bell v Tavistock, which removed appropriate healthcare from trans children and adolescents. This did both physical and mental harm to patients, destabilised NHS services, and was a huge cost of time and money to the public purse. Establishing and communicating the facts about trans experience has become much more difficult than it was 20 years ago.
It can be hard to be patient – especially when it feels as though you’re constantly under attack. What’s your advice for young activists?
First, never forget that for 50 years, UK trans people self-identified, accessed affirmative medical care, corrected their birth certificates and lived equally. Equality wasn’t a problem then and shouldn’t be a problem now.
Second, recall that the limited civil liberties which have been reclaimed came from legal action, political lobbying, and educating the public, and those are still the three main routes for change.
Finally, alliance is crucial. Government is currently replaying on trans communities the same approaches used to impose Section 28 on lesbians and gay men in 1988 and then, it was the trans case P v S and Cornwall County Council which enabled gay and lesbian civil liberties to be reclaimed, beginning with lifting the ban against them in the military. It is working with allies – insistently, persistently, consistently – that will make trans liberation an irresistible force.
Who are the gender diverse people, past or present, that inspire you?
I’m inspired by everyone who ever said to bullies, “No, I don’t let you do that”. That refusal, wherever and however it takes place, is a key turning point. The bullying may be personal or political, from ignorance, or unawareness, ideological belief or political expediency, or just because bullies enjoy hurting the vulnerable. And the refusal may be polite or angry, personal push-back or a major legal case, focussed on an individual or a system.
Perhaps the argument is won or perhaps it is lost but people who say “No, I don’t let you do that”, and who don’t give up saying it: they are impressive.
I think of my friend and comrade-in-arms, the late Terry Reed, who founded GIRES, and who never stopped saying “No” to bullies, right up to the end of her life. That’s inspiring.
It can be difficult to imagine a future when things feel so bleak. What are your hopes for the trans community?
Things have been much better in the past (the pre-1970 period of trans equality) and much worse (the genocide period 1970-1996) than they are now. History tells us that excluded minority communities have to fight for the restoration of equality: the people who took it aren’t going to just give it back. And that battle is fought on many fronts at the same time, and succeeds through the often unpaid work of activists and allies who support and encourage each other.
They do this because, irrespective of personal backgrounds or political allegiances, they share the same ethical principle: belief in the fundamental and inalienable values which we call social justice, human freedom, and equality.
I hope trans communities will recognise this common purpose, mobilise allies – parliamentarians, lawyers, doctors, teachers, journalists, families, friends – and never give up until the equality that was removed by Ewan’s case is restored again.
Filmmaker, photographer, author and producer Elegance talks to Mermaids about LGBT History Month, his documentary Pier Kids, and how art can transform us
Interview by Bex Shorunke
This LGBT History Month, we’re focussing on the way in which art can be political and revolutionary.
With that in mind, we spoke to the magnificently talented filmmaker Elegance Bratton, whose debut documentary Pier Kids chronicles the lives of trans and gay youths of colour living in Manhattan’s Chelsea Pier.
Made between 2011 and 2016, Pier Kids authentically represents a community experiencing homelessness and social exclusion, who in the face of adversity are able to find strength in each other and their creativity.
We caught up with Elegance to find out how his own experience of homelessness informed his decision to film Pier Kids, his tips for budding filmmakers keen to tell queer stories, and why we need to celebrate Black trans women like Marsha P Johnson and Sylvia Rivera for their contribution to the fight for LGBTQIA+ equality.
Why do you think the stories of Krystal, Casper and DeSean were so important to tell?
I was kicked out of my house at 16 for being gay. I’m not the only one. In America, 40-60% of homeless youth are queer and over half of them are Black. I wanted to put a face to what’s happening everyday in our country. I also wanted to redirect the gay rights movement to be focused on homeless LGBTQIA+ youth. Mostly though, I wanted to understand and make peace with my painful past of homelessness by finding a community. I needed to tell these stories to heal myself.
Pier Kids authentically explores the pains, trauma, joy and reality of queer Black young people in Chelsea Pier. How did you go about gaining the trust of the cast and forming a relationship so that they felt able to fully let you in?
About a month after meeting Krystal, she told me that I could not film her life unless we were friends. She felt like my point of view was too objective and as a Black trans woman she needed support more than she needed exposure. That demand was revolutionary for me as an artist. It made the film more aligned with the youth and less concerned with outsiders. I didn’t want to crowd this film with experts. I wanted to treat my community as the first and last stop when it came to the condition of homelessness they battle. In short, I showed up everyday and tried to listen more than I spoke.
What did you learn about yourself and your craft filming Pier Kids?
EVERYTHING. Pier Kids is the first thing I ever tried to make. I used five different video cameras, and shot over 400 hours of footage. Maybe the most important thing I learned is the power of the camera. I really believe that in spite of contrary objections, whoever holds the camera is telling their own story. Pier Kids taught me the power of that truism.
How important is voguing and art to the trans and queer community in Chelsea Pier?
Creativity and imagination are the only freedoms that are purely under the control of the individual. Art is so important to our community because it provides a means of transformation. Just from a practical standpoint; imagine being a young queer person of colour and never seeing a successful adult queer person. This is so true for so many. Very often, we have to envision a future for ourselves in a world that doesn’t see us in it. That visionary act of self invention is itself artistic.
I truly believe that for many queer artist the first creation they make is themselves. Voguing is an extension of the self-actualisation process. Each movement learned is another tool of expression in a world obsessed with making you silent/invisible. Voguing is first a martial art. It is a dance meant to mime fighting. So many queer people get bashed and one day our community decided to turn that fight into a dance that, in turn, has changed the world. How cool is that?
To what extent do you think there has been progression in trans rights in America?
The progression for trans rights in the United States is undeniable. However, there is way more work to be done. The thing is that the gay rights movement has spent the better part of 50 years sidelining trans and Black people. The advancements we enjoy today are the direct result of trans women like Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P Johnson. They started the modern gay rights movement when they were the first to protest police brutality at the Stonewall Inn. They represent a group of homeless Black and Brown street queens for whom Christopher Street is a spiritual home.
I don’t think the movement has done nearly enough to repay the self-sacrifice trans women made to make us all safer. Like, for real. Walking down the street as trans is an act of protest. Every time a trans person gets safely from door to door it makes it easier for all of us to move safer in the world. I believe that Black trans women need to be at the centre of the movement for queer rights. I believe homelessness should be the issue we all mobilise behind. This is the only way to pay homage to the women responsible for the safety we enjoy today.
How are the cast getting on now?
Krystal just got her new apartment! DeSean is building his life one brick at a time.
What does LGBT History Month represent for you?
LGBT History Month in the UK coincides with Black History Month in the US. For me, this time is an extension of my daily practice of reconciling the contradictions and corollaries all of my intersecting identities produce for me. I’m trying to make sure I find balance between them all and imagining how to demand justice for all of me at once.
Who are some of your favourite queer filmmakers or creators?
Pedro Almodovar, John Waters, Xavier Dolan, Joel Schumacher, Isobel Sandoval, Salvador Dali, Andy Warhol, Lil Nas X, Frank Ocean, Jennie Livingston, Gaga, George Johnson, Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsburg, William Burroughs, Jean Genet. The list goes on…
Growing up, what was your favourite queer film?
Paris Is Burning
What are you working on next?
I’m wrapping up my fiction feature debut The Inspection. It’s a Gamechanger/A24 film starring Gabrielle Union, Jeremy Pope, Bokeem Woodbine, and Raul Castillo. I’m also building Freedom Principle, my production company with my beautiful life partner Chester Algernal Gordon. Trying to teach my puppies how to roll over.
Finally, what tips do you have for would-be filmmakers wanting to tell queer stories?
I would say remember to use the camera to make the audience equal to who is on screen. Very often when I watch documentaries about poor Black folks, they’re made for white audiences to maintain their privileged distance from the participants on screen. Remember that to view people as “subjects” is inherently colonial. Each person gracious enough to grant you access is a participant/collaborator as essential to the storytelling process as you are. Share that power through what you make!