Photo Ellen Pearson

Photo Ellen Pearson

“Once, on a train, I had two businessmen being very rude to me but I shut them down and they learnt their lesson. I literally ripped them a new arsehole. They tried to shake my hand afterwards because I ruined them so bad.” 

Why nail painting?

I was studying art direction, and for my final project I wanted to show how creative direction can be applied to the voluntary or charity sector, and how it can be so much better if charities are a bit more innovative and creative and more fabulous! I wanted to challenge the conventions of activism and try it my own way.

Nails are a catalyst to connection for me – they mean you sit with someone, you touch them physically, but you also touch them on a deeper level, which is perfect. It gives me five minutes to convert the person to fighting transphobia and it humanises the issue. That’s what I wanted to do, and nails give me the opportunity to do that because of the intimate quality of the interaction.

Nail painting is one of the many acts that are incredibly gendered. Why do you think it is constructed as feminine and do you see that manifesting itself in your campaign?

I didn’t even think of the gendered aspect when I started my campaign. I remember suddenly thinking that I’m going to get so much shtick for trying to tackle gender issues through something that is super gendered. But I get so many different kinds of people coming to my booth. My dad is a builder and he’s had his nails done at one of my events. I’ve had 83 year olds and 3 year olds; I’ve had every race, creed, sexuality, and gender come and get their nails done with me. People seem to love it. That said, it’s often the straight guys who will try to be a bit subversive – I mainly do all white and the decals here [pointing to forefinger and middle finger] and they’ll be like ‘no I just want this finger’ [pointing to her held up middle finger]. They’re still trying to be macho.

There has been a surge in self-love and body positivity on the internet, especially for trans folk, given the growth of online resources which are opening up important conversations and helping spread solidarity amongst minority groups. How important would you say acceptance and self-love is for your campaign?

I had to find myself before I found the campaign, because I couldn’t have started doing it otherwise. Pre-transition, for as long as I can remember, I hated how I looked so much. My gender was something that was part of the conversation with my family and friends – I’d often talk about being a girl. When I came to accept myself as trans it was at my lowest point. I was close to killing myself, but I had to break down to break through.

Nothing changed for the next two years – I’ve only been on hormones for the past six months, and not even much has changed now – but I can’t tell you how different my life is just because of the shift to accepting and loving myself. You think I’d be more dysphoric now I have accepted that I am a woman. Why am I even more at home in my body despite it being so ‘male’, with so much body hair and a receding hairline and a penis? But that’s what acceptance is. It’s not about qualifying when you’ll love yourself – you love yourself now. I feel like that’s pure love and that’s true love, and that’s what I found.

How do other trans activists respond to you?

Hopefully positively! I’d say not though – I’ve definitely seen some people online question the validity of my form of activism. I totally believe that anger is valid, and that angry activism is valid, but there is room for other forms.

I think people assume if something is pretty it’s not effective. But if I went to the V&A, and instead of doing nails I got a megaphone out and started shouting in people’s faces, I sadly would not be as successful or effective. I know first hand that what I am doing is valid because I overhear people saying that I really changed their mind on trans issues. Or when I did a talk with a bunch of kids on council estates, I literally see the shift among them afterwards. So if anyone has a problem with it, they should do something to change the status quo themselves.

Photo Ellen Pearson

Photo Ellen Pearson

People from oppressed groups, quite fairly, get pissed off at the expectation people outside of those groups have for them to teach or be their guide. In Nail Transphobia you’re putting yourself in that position willingly, but in your time off do people expect you to give them ‘Trans 101’?

Every time someone does a project on trans or drag or anything to do with that in Uni, I’m the first person they contact. You have to answer the exact same questions – I should just have an FAQ that I can send people! That said, I still do it because I feel like it’s my duty. You never know what the ramifications of telling them that story will be.

Maybe it’s because of where I come from, being a council estate girl, and knowing the importance of educating people. I have a lot of friends from strict Jamaican backgrounds, or Portuguese backgrounds who I’ve won over by teaching them and showing them that I’m a normal person. I’ve won their families over too, and I’ve seen the power of doing that. And that’s why I do it, and that’s why my activism takes this particular form.

Do you think that there are similar issues of class and classism that play a part in what you do?

One hundred per cent. I always say that being working class is a luxury a lot of trans people can’t afford. It’s such an ironic thing to say but it’s so true. I am working so hard to make it so I can lift myself out of the reality I am in now. I make my own reality because I can’t deal with the one I’m in – I can’t.

The hardest thing about it is that I am so, so, so proud of being working class. I love my class but my people don’t love me! I’ve been accepted by a lot of people where I live but the moment I go off my estate I get so much crap. You have no idea. That’s why I’m trying to make a reality for myself where I get to mix in middle class circles: because middle class people are much less likely to say, ‘that’s a man’, in the street. And, sadly, it’s working class people who will feel the need to say things like that. It’s a job I really resent having to take on, but that’s why it’s so important to interact with my people, because they’re the people who need to learn the lesson most.

What about the more insidious forms of transphobia that are present among these middle class circles?

I’d almost rather that sometimes. I work in the middle media class environment, so it happens a lot, but it’s easier in some ways. There are people who will be nice to your face and then you’ll find out that they’ve be saying transphobic things behind your back. They see you as just a gay guy.

So there is direct violence that you can combat with education. Do you think there is violence in media representation too?

Definitely. And the sad thing is that they relate: if the media put out good representations then working class people would be more educated and not willfully misgender because they’d know it’s rude. The media have such power. Take the Kardashians. I’m not going to glorify Caitlyn Jenner, I’m not her biggest fan, but I think it’s amazing she’s done it so publicly. It’s not even about her so much; it’s the way the Kardashians have dealt with the transition that I think is so commendable. They have accepted her. Even if it’s fake – I don’t care. What they’ve taught the public has been so valuable. And as the media and people’s perceptions are so interlinked... I think we’re getting there.

So – what’s in the future?

Hopefully, acceptance – hopefully less of this bullshit representation. When I was very depressed and suicidal, there was a long gap between accepting myself as trans and getting onto hormones – it was about two years. So it was two years of knowing who I am but not being allowed to be me. I had to tell myself, every day: “Just sleep. Because every day you wake up you are, by default, a day closer to getting onto hormones.” That applies here too. Whether we’re trying to or not, we are moving towards acceptance. We move actively as well as passively, and we are getting there. 

Words Sadhbh O'Sullivan and photography Ellen Pearson