“We can do this thing called gender differently, if we want to”
BY DANIELLE MUSTARDE. PHOTO JUNO ROCHE
Juno Roche is not a trans woman. Juno Roche is trans. In fact, according to Juno’s latest book Trans Power: Own Your Gender, we all are.
“When my first book, Queer Sex, came out, I got a lovely email from somebody who described themselves as a ‘non-trans woman’,” Juno explains from her home in Andalusia, a large autonomous region in southern Spain. “She said that she’d spent her whole life feeling like her vagina was ugly, that she didn’t want to look at it and that she didn’t ever want anyone to go down on her. She felt really ashamed of it. Until, she said, she read Queer Sex and realised that, actually, there’s a world of bodies out there.
“I’m not claiming that Queer Sex did that alone but, in a way, I feel like I have to open my legs before I ask anybody else to open theirs.”
This is one reason why in Trans Power, the 55-year-old writer, campaigner and LBT Women’s Health Week ambassador “reframes” their genitals. “I don’t call my genitals a vagina anymore. I say that I have an upcycled cock and balls that looks like a vagina – and fantastically so, at that. This reframes it in a really powerful way which isn’t about ‘looking real’ because everyone spends their whole life trying to look real. Be we dykes or trans or trans dykes, or be we heterosexual men, whoever it is, we spend our lives trying to ‘get it right’ and feeling uncomfortable in our own bodies.
“By talking about my feeling uncomfortable in my body, and that not being good enough and trying to get to a point where I feel comfortable is, I think, why Queer Sex and Trans Power have sold like any other book. They aren’t just books about being trans or queer, they’re also books about living in the mountains in Andalusia and what that’s like as a queer person and an HIV positive person. Once people realised that Queer Sex wasn’t just about queer sex, once they realised it was about trying to feel at home in your body, it had universality.”
One of the most arresting things about the way Juno writes, is the way in which it allows the reader to transcend much of the abrasive white noise that all-too-often swirls around the term ‘transgender’ on social media and in segments of the mainstream media. Instead, Trans Power looks upon transness as a universal phenomena and asks questions like how do we all, as humans, experience gender? What is it that we all need? What is it that’s driving us apart? And crucially, what brings us closer together?
“I’ve started to talk a lot about the word ‘cis’ and how, for me, I get that it’s really handy, but all it does is reinforce the divide. Somebody asked me recently, ‘Do you think it’s okay for a cis person to write about a trans person or to write a trans character?’ And I said, well, no I don’t think it is anymore, but I think what you could do is write about the trans in you because, actually, if we got rid of the word cis and just imagined that we were all trans – because all that trans means is,’I feel uncomfortable in my body and in the way that people perceive my body’ – then that’s most of us. If you think about the history of women’s bodies, it’s a history of people telling women that they should feel uncomfortable and that their bodies are controlled by other people. So, for me, transness is about trying to get comfortable.”
In that sense, Juno’s most recent work moves away from labels because, as they explain, “We’re a body and we want our bodies to feel comfortable. We don’t want to feel uncomfortable because so much of life is about struggling and striving and aspiring and trying to get somewhere and trying to be taller or slimmer or smaller or funnier. We need to be more resolute about saying, ‘No, stop. I just want to be comfortable in my body’. It’s the one thing that we own outright.”
Does Juno believe this common uncomfortableness underpins some of the tension within the LGBTQI community currently? “Absolutely. I mean, look at the shit that dykes have had for years and years. Look at the shit that they’ve had about what they’re not, what they’re trying to be, and who do they think they are. It’s like, enough is enough. We all need to feel comfortable in our identities, that should be what life is about really, much more than aspiring to own houses or this or that. Dysphoria is one of the most common human concepts but somehow it’s been packaged up as a ‘trans thing’. That’s why I say if we just imagined that we’re all trans to a greater or lesser extent and that, actually, everyone has dysphoria, then actually, trans is for everyone.
“I used to be a primary school teacher and the kind of shit that girls would feel around their bodies as they grow up, when they’ve been told that they should be small and quiet and delicate and blonde… Gender fucks people up and we need to reclaim it and say, ‘Actually, we can do this thing called gender differently if we want to’.”
This definition reimagines what it means to be trans completely. But is a more “elastic” definition of trans what the community needs? “The definition of trans is so outdated,” Juno says. “I refuse to be defined by the words of a cis, straight, heterosexual, privileged, white, middle-class man writing in the 1920s. My identity has to be something that we’re creating now when we say, ‘What trans is, is feeling uncomfortable because we live in a world that is divided by horribly patriarchal, horribly misogynistic, horribly, brutally punishing lines around gender and around our bodies and actually, I don’t have the issue – society has got this really screwed up notion around bodies and gender and, in fact, most of us are born into a body that somehow doesn’t quite live up to society’s expectations of who we should be or how we should look.”
If people were to begin using this definition however, might it be that those more fluid trans identities might take up the space of trans people who’ve had different, oftentimes very difficult experiences? “The way we’ve seen it up to now, trans has been medicalised, where actually, that’s becoming less and less true for many, many people. There are some really interesting stats about the number of people worldwide who will never be able to afford to have surgery of any kind and so, we end up in a situation whereby the ‘successful’ trans model is one by which people can afford to have ‘everything done’ – and, that’s brilliant. I don’t want to stop people from doing that, but I do want to open up the bandwidth so that many people can express their transness exactly how they want to express it.”
Is it a matter of wider society catching up, then? “Yes, and they will do. Probably not in my lifetime, but all I’ve ever wanted is to create, through my writing, a bit of space that maybe didn’t exist before in which people can spend a bit of time musing and thinking about stuff and coming to decisions on their own terms.”
The last sentence of the first chapter of the book comes up in conversation. In it, Juno writes along the lines of, ‘I hate saying this but, I feel lonely and that’s the downside of moving into this space.’ In this quiet revelation, Juno reaffirms their experience as simply a human one.
Though transgressive, Trans Power is also a book completely grounded and achingly universal at heart. “There’s no point in bullshitting people, this is a tough gig and yes, it feels lonely but the bigger part of me is driven because I know it’s creating that space and, actually, I feel like I’m having a really good life. I’ve had 27 years of post-HIV life that people said I wouldn’t have – that’s why I feel incredibly driven to get this stuff down. Of course, it’s tough. I’m complex, according to some people – though I don’t think I’m complex.
“All I’m saying is, this is a set of circumstances around my body and actually, the only precarious thing a trans person can do is to try and be like everybody else. When we try and be like everybody else, the world tells us we’re trying too hard, or we’re getting it wrong.
“The only thing that I can do brilliantly is be trans. I do that excellently. In fact, I do that fantastically.”
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