Blog: Lauren John Joseph

As a working class child they were told that writing was not for the likes of them. As a trans adult the publishing world seemed impossibly out of reach. Here they write about defying the odds

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When I was eight or so I casually told my family, as children do, that I had decided how I would like to spend my life – writing books. Though the whole family was present for this announcement the only response I can remember, and I remember it word for word, was my grandad’s. He said “That’s not for the likes of us, la,” as frank and clear as that, and I took it straight to heart. People who lived on council estates, whose family scraped by on benefits and daydreams of winning the pools, he seemed to be saying, didn’t write books.

My grandad was a striking docker. Before he broke his foot on national service in Germany he had dreamt of playing for Everton. With his lifetime of disillusionment and experience of life at the bottom of the heap, he seemed to me as worldly as a sailor, as infallible as the Pope. In spite of the fact that I was already writing stories good enough to be read out in school, and being given exercise books by the neighbours so I could keep writing, I never questioned his judgement that I was only kidding myself if I thought I could ever be a writer. I accepted it absolutely. The verdict seemed to only ever grow truer. I continued to write of course, but largely in secret.

By the time I entered puberty my writing had started to reveal things to me which I thought could never be shared with anyone but the nonexistent reader I wrote for – that I was fundamentally and inexcusably different from everyone around me. Even in radical reading I found myself in a double bind, recognising that most queer wild cards like Kathy Acker and William Burroughs came from nice families, finding it impossible to envision how a person might be working class, transgender and a successful writer all at once. It took me pretty much 30 years to even begin to muddle it all out.

Deciding to embark on a career as a writer when you are both trans and underclass can seem like the product of an overactive death drive

Because of the employment discrimination, ostracisation in education and hostility from families that trans and non-binary people face, they are much more likely to be economically disenfranchised than cis counterparts. Stonewall puts the figure of trans people who become homeless at 25 per cent, compared with 0.5 per cent of the general population (according to Shelter). Against this background deciding to embark on a career as a writer when you are both trans and underclass can seem like the product of an overactive death drive, and it is this impossible impulse I decided to try and explore when Trans Vegas asked me what I’d like to present for this year’s festival.

For my piece, Not For The Likes Of Us, I spoke to three other trans writers, Torrey Peters, Tom Cho and Juno Roche, about how they have each managed to negotiate the extremely bourgeois and explicitly heterosexist world of publishing. All three spoke about having to navigate expectations from gatekeepers who presumed to know best how much readers would accept, and it became clear very quickly that really this was only an extension of the prejudices they faced in their personal lives.

All of us had been told (literally or by implication) that writing was not for the likes of us, just as we had all been told at various points that our genders were not ours to decide, or that we could not use the pronouns that best suited us. Juno spoke of how she had been denied her gender affirmation surgeries for a decade because, as an HIV+ person, the procedure was not available for people like them. Torrey spoke about the aggressive campaign against her nomination for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, by people who thought the prize was not for people like her. Trans and non-binary people are so marginalised, and so maligned by the current cultural hysteria, that it’s amazing to me that any of us manage to ever pick up a pen or sit down at the keyboard.

Ultimately though it feels like we have been forced to write simply for want of any other way to survive in this world, and in doing so have put down words which are so powerful that they speak far beyond our specific experiences of gender. Through expressing the frustrations we felt at being told we would never be heard, that we would never find an audience, we are reaching people across the world, people who recognise our shared struggle. Perhaps then, the increasing success and visibility of trans and non-binary writers today is itself evidence of a strange and wonderful poetic justice at play in the world.

Lauren John Joseph is in conversation with Torrey Peters, Juno Roche and Tom Cho as part of TransVegas, the UK’s largest trans arts festival. Photo: Elvind Hansen

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