I spoke with Munroe Bergdorf, a London-based DJ and model. Bergdorf is an advocate and activist for the trans community. From primetime BBC news spots to making history as Uniqlo’s first trans model, Bergdorf is nothing short of an unstoppable force, using her platform to speak out on important issues.
Whilst solidarity networks for the trans community and other marginalised groups have emerged, information has increased and discussion has broadened, racism has been buried underground; it’s inconspicuous. We talked about what it means to be a trans woman of colour in 2016 given the complicated manner in which racism manifests itself, colourisim, faith and the importance of safe spaces.
One might have thought that someone as influential as Bergdorf would have the freedom to discuss race and other intersecting forms of discrimination within the trans community, but this often is not the case. She stressed the importance of using her position, but how her thoughts are often sanitised, toned down so as not cause controversy. Wonderland’s PoC portfolio has provided a rare opportunity for Bergdorf to explore at depth the politics behind what it means to be black and trans in 2016. “It’s so frustrating, you don’t even know who to blame,” Munroe states. “I’m going to keep on trooping, and I’m glad to do interviews like this, where I’m actually speaking to you about stuff that I care about and stuff that we should all care about. I wouldn’t be doing it if I couldn’t use my voice, [and because] I feel like a lot of the magazine and television stuff I do, I’m censored, and a lot of stuff gets cut out.”
Liv: Wonderland‘s accompanying images are unashamedly a celebration of blackness, something rarely showcased within mainstream media. How did you find the experience [of the Wonderland shoot]?
Munroe: The shoot was very powerful, to kind of have a shoot that is celebrating blackness, rather than dressing me up in something that isn’t my culture. Nothing about it was costume, it was about celebrating blackness now and what it means to be black in today’s society and there are references to the Black Panther movement which is amazing. It was powerful, there was nothing covered up, it was bringing out everybody’s individual blackness. I was very happy to be a part of that.
Everyone from the hair stylist to the photographer were people of colour which was amazing, because usually it’s a bit of a whitewash, especially with fashion things and lifestyle magazines. It was just really refreshing to have a theme of empowerment running through. Everybody was bringing different vibes, and everybody was just self empowered which was nice. Everybody was so different. Yet everyone had the same kind of glow within them, so that was really really nice to see, it was different.
L: What are the types of issues which you want to be talking about?
M: I want to talk about the things that actually affect us. Why are men killing us? Why are faith and “transness” not cohesive in today’s society seemingly? Death rates, faith and transness amongst Muslim people, Christian families disowning children because of their faith and people still having their faith and being trans.
I think that they are two topics that make people quite uncomfortable: I mean as soon as you mention race to someone who isn’t a person of colour, defensiveness comes up, and they’re happy to say they’re not a racist before you’ve even said anything. I don’t think people know what racism is in this day and age, I mean racism is an insidious entity which has changed, it’s no longer explicit and obvious and thrown around vocally, it’s something that is subliminal and hidden.
It’s almost like a ghost, and people don’t realise it. It’s like people are possessed and they don’t realise that you don’t need to be a racist to be acting in a racist way or use racist language. I think that if we are going to get anywhere we need to start educating people on what racism is and where it comes from, the ways it actually effects people in today’s society.
L: What has the transitioning process been like for you?
M: When I first started my transition I was deathly afraid to walk down the street, which is terrible and I know that people still feel like that now. You’ve also got dysphoria to contend with at the same time, which is 10 times more difficult when you’ve got other people who are telling you how they feel about you, when you are trying to tell them how you feel about yourself.
It really depends on the person but when you’ve got racism to contend with and your transition to contend with, it makes it 10 times harder than if you are say, white and privileged, and have got white privilege on your hands. You don’t have that privilege if you are a trans woman of colour.
L: I read an article where you were referred to as the UK’s version of Laverne Cox. Do you ever feel like there is an attempt to homogenise the “black trans experience” in the UK and US?
M: Transness varies from person to person obviously, because we need to take everything into account. Everything from skin-tone, not just race, but even tone can change your experience, which is terrible. Intersectionality is literally everything in terms of how your experience of being trans will be. But from what I gather, being a trans woman of colour in America is pretty bad. The rate of trans women of colour who are being murdered is staggering and it’s frightening. Here, it’s bad, I mean there is still violence.
L: Online forums have been on the rise, providing a space in which people can dissect these intersecting and varied lived experiences. In fact, we met online in a group dedicated to radical black and brown hotties. Not only does the internet provide a much needed resource for young people of colour to research challenging topics, it also provides safe spaces for discussion. What exactly makes spaces like these so special?
M: Internet safe spaces have been a god send, but also just hearing about people’s stories. Hopefully I’ve reached people in the back end of nowhere, like where I grew up. Hopefully they see that you can be successful in being yourself and not having to compromise it. I never thought that I could do what I wanted to do because I was trans, or because before I came out as trans I identified as gay. There’s always been something holding me back, and before that it was my race. When you are told that you’re not good or you’re only exposed to bad examples of people in an oppressed, marginalised group, you kind of feel like that. And when you are handed the scraps you start to feel like the scraps, so I think it’s always great to hear positive stories from people. You start to feel good about yourself.
L: How have [these stories] benefitted you?
M: I find so much validation for my feelings. Because to find a space that is actually safe, you can actually share your feelings and thoughts and insecurities. You realise that all those thoughts and insecurities are universal. There are loads of people who are going through that; the same frustrations will be felt. So to find somewhere to share those feelings, get them off your chest or explore them further, those kind of spaces have helped put into words how I feel. Because I felt frustrated, but once I realised why I was frustrated, I could validate that. I could turn it into something constructive and realise what I wanted to see change, then go ahead and campaign to change it.
L: March saw a day of “transgender visibility”, and you featured in the national campaign alongside fellow advocates Laith Ashley and Hannah Winterbourne. The message behind trans visibility, not only to raise public awareness of the injustices faced by the trans community, but also to celebrate individual achievements. How important then, is it for you to use your position as a model to speak out on discrimination?
M: I’m not concerned about being a model, I’m concerned about having the opportunity to be hired to use my voice. If I can’t use my voice, then I’m not that bothered about the job. I just want to use my voice, and if I can’t, then I don’t have that much investment in it.