“It didn’t matter what your genitals were, what mattered was: do you have a beautiful voice and do you look fabulous?”
Genderqueer performer CN Lester, who identifies as neither male nor female, talks to Paris Lees about sexual harassment, operatic androgyny and a mutual fear of going blind.
Paris: You set up the classical music ensemble En Travesti in 2008 with Anne Rebecca Laurent – tell me more?
CN: Rebecca and I both specialised in transgender themes in opera for our masters. She’s just this straight woman, but she loves anything in operatic history that’s to do with undermining gender roles so we got together with Phillip who was plays harpsichord. On the baroque opera stage it didn’t matter what your genitals were, what mattered was: do you have a beautiful voice and do you look fabulous in the costume?
I didn’t realise opera was so gender-bendery…
Classic FM gives you all these passive opera heroines who might lie down and die quite gradually, but the baroque opera heroines just don’t do that. They’re sorceresses and fighters and warriors and queens, and it’s kind of amazing – they kick arse. They might have been played by castrati who was dressed up as a woman, or by women who pretended to be men to get the roles…
Have you been picked up on the classical radar?
Early music doesn’t have the same cache as some grand operas, but this year we’re really focusing on widening our fan base and bringing more instruments in. We actually started as just two voices and a harpsichord, and now we’re doing it with 15 and an early music orchestra. I think next year we’ll maybe start thinking about making a record.
You’re performing at the Trans Media Watch MoU Launch at Channel 4 on Monday. Elaborate.
Well I’m really excited, and so is everyone in the company as we all feel very strongly about how trans history has been suppressed. Rebecca and I started our academic careers writing about it and the more the others get to know me the more they see how the day to day discrimination is so affected by media issues – and they’re fucking furious about it. Being able to participate in something which is so groundbreaking – the fact that people will be signing up to this memorandum – I’m just ecstatic. Obviously, things won’t change overnight, but it’s such a huge step forward. We hope to present a more historical perspective, to say that actually trans issues are not recent phenomena: transgenderism is not some affliction of the modern age, but just a basic human trait. People think classical music is really straight-laced and is just for white, straight, cis people but it never has been, it’s always been full of people that society marginalises and pretends don’t exist, but there we are, centre stage, to spread that message.
Does being trans harm your career?
Classical music, now, is very conservative. I can’t get chorus work because I wouldn’t be willing to wear female clothes or be a member of a women’s chorus. It’s difficult. I’ve actually experienced quite a lot of discrimination finding tutors and applying for courses, being held back by people who were so sure their transphobia was acceptable that they were quite open about it to people I knew. They didn’t see that they were in the wrong – they thought I was wrong for daring to apply. So it was very much “We don’t want people like that associated with us” and they were happy to put it down in writing. The person involved was eventually forced to resign.
What role do the media play?
It’s what we consume everyday – we’re bombarded with it. Whether we like the media or not, whether we chose to engage with it or not, other people are engaging and then their behaviour affects our lives. Women are still treated like second class citizens – add transphobia into that mix and it just explodes. The message that people are getting every day is either that trans people don’t exist, or, if they do exist, that they’re pathetic freaks who we shall laugh at. No wonder they don’t see it as a problem if they discriminate against us, I mean, who would care? If we’re not even afforded the basic decency of having people address us with the right pronouns or correct names, why would they have to be polite enough to offer us equal opportunities at work or in education? You know, you can’t even walk down the street without someone having a problem.
What harassment do you face?
I don’t take hormones, so the majority of people perceive me as a woman, but obviously a woman who is transgressing gender norms. So the street harassment I get tends to be sexual aggression from cis [non-trans] guys, like “Hey baby, how about one up the arse?” or “Suck on this darling.” Or trying to grope you in the street. Then it gets mixed in with the transphobia, when they’re not entirely sure if I’m female or male, that adds to that aggression and it just turns into “f**ing freak” or “faggot”. I think one guy even came out with “You f**king pervert.” I thought wow: you have no idea what I do in bed.
How do you deal with it?
You watch where you go. If you see a group of young guys coming you think: “I’m crossing the street and if they start yelling stuff I’m just going to put my fingers in my ears and think about music.” Feeling unsafe on the street is a big deal, but also I had to stop going to gay bars and gay clubs because I was just so sick of being groped by strangers. It was lots of “I can’t tell if you’re a man or a woman” but before you can say it’s none of your business, they’ve decided to grab your crotch to decide for themselves.
Some of the worst transphobia I’ve experienced has been in gay bars…
I don’t want to sound rude or like I have a problem with lesbians – but I’ve had some really terrible experiences in gay bars from strangers deciding that I’m a traitor to lesbians everywhere. It’s like: 1. I’m bisexual and 2. I’m not a woman… so! And strangers just deciding, especially when they’re drunk, that they can just come and commit acts of sexual assault because they don’t even think you get to the right to sit quietly and have a drink with your friends,
All the more galling when we’re the ones seen as perverts…
I know, especially this whole bathroom issue.
Which toilets do you feel safest in?
The disabled one, unisex. It really depends upon the day: if I’m not wearing any eye make up, the guys, if I go Goth, the ladies. If I use a women’s bathroom I get lots of “cha” and angry looks, but then if use the men’s I’m always quite worried that someone will take it a further than just being rude. I tend to do what a lot of trans people do – I try not to drink too much and I try not to use public toilets.
Any problems in shops?
Most places I’ve found to be really quite friendly, but there was one time in Topman where they were just so, so incredibly rude. I got a couple of things to try on and there were two assistant trainees on the door. I find it darkly funny in those situations, where you feel like saying: “Well if you’re counting up what side you’re going to put me on, do you not think I could do the same for you?” Especially when you get these guys who are shorter than you, with great big man breasts. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it’s ironic when they judge you on those stereotypical points. So anyway, they were sort of whispering to each other and one guy said “Oh you can’t use these changing rooms”. I asked what their specific policy for transgender customers was and he just gave me this look like I’d spoken in some bizarre language. They whispered a bit more, then one decided to fetch the manager. The manager also gave me this long considering look, up and down, spoke to the assistants – didn’t speak to me – and I asked again: “Do you have a policy for transgender customers?” He just said, um, um, um… more whispering, and then he said: “Well female customers can’t use this changing room”. I said: “Well I’m not female and would really appreciate you answering me the trans-customers question” and he just gave me this weird look. I didn’t lose my temper, but I did drop the clothes on the ground and said “Look, you’ve lost a customer” – and went off and bought lots of stuff elsewhere.
It was very odd going to River Island afterwards because they were such sweethearts. They were like “Do you have everything in your size?” and “Can we ask you to buy more expensive things?” and “Ooh you look fabulous in that – you definitely ought to buy it!”
Did you complain?
I did, and they wrote a long letter of apology saying they are meant to have sensitivity training for all their staff and that obviously the gender that someone presents as is the gender they’re treated as. And that it shouldn’t have happened and that it’s not their position to decide if people are allowed to be one gender or another. They gave me a voucher – it was a genuine apology and a promise to increases sensitivity training in that store so it was a nice answer. But it brings you down when you can’t even do your capitalist duty and do some shopping without someone giving you a hard time for it.
It’s enough to keep you indoors…
Well…. I think we’re so f**king hard on ourselves anyway. I don’t know a single trans person who doesn’t spend every single day sort of going: “Am I OK, am I allowed to go out into the outside world, Oh God, Oh God, it’s all so tragic!” I sometimes even wonder what will happen if I’m in a terrible accident.
I wonder what’d happen if I go blind…
Please tell me that me your biggest concern about going blind is that you wouldn’t be able to check how you looked?
It’s my ONLY concern.
I know, what about my hair? What if I wasn’t dressed properly? I’d have to hire a personal stylist – it’s just so ridiculous.
I worry about war meaning they stopped making hormone tablets…
There’d have to be some stylish, 1940s-style like spy network. It would be amazing, like all these incredible trans women in Yves Saint Laurent trading black market hormones…
Back to the media, 2011. What would you like to see change?
One is just basic respect. There are style guidelines out there by the Gender Trust or Trans Media Watch with easy to follow instructions on how to talk about trans people. So don’t pretend you don’t know better, you know better. You don’t use derogatory language about black people, you don’t use derogatory language about Asian people – or at least you shouldn’t – so don’t use it about trans people. And the second thing is greater exposure, and not some cisgender person going to peer into trans people’s lives. I want more trans people talking for themselves. These are our lives and if you want to know about them, ask us, because we know best.
So how about trans people reading the news?
Perfect! There are all these trans people out there who are amazing journalists and political commentators, or incredible wordsmiths who write opinion pieces and articles. So don’t just have a story where it goes “They’re trans and they came out at this age…” or whatever. We’re not just one dimensional people – we have a lot to say.