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ACTIVISM Sister on a mission: Talking with trans activist Charlie Craggs
by Owen Keehnen
2017-12-27

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Charlie Craggs has discussed trans issues on TV and before Parliament and written on trans issues in both The Guardian and The Independent. Craggs was also named one of the most influential and inspirational LGBTQ people in the United Kingdom.

The author, speaker and founder of Nail Transphobia ( which seeks to stamp out transphobia one manicure at a time ) has recently released a new book as well. To My Trans Sisters is an important collection of dozens of letters of sisterly advice from various trans "elders" to their trans sisters. The book has been called, "A love letter to our community from the women who understand" and is considered a terrific source, offering advice, direction and inspiration to those at various places in their journey. To My Trans Sisters also seeks to provide others with a deeper understanding of an oftentimes misunderstood part of the LGBTQ community.

Windy City Times: Tell me about the initial idea for your new book To My Trans Sisters.

Charlie Craggs: The book is a collection of letters of sisterly advice from almost 100 trailblazing trans women for girls going through transition. It's the book I wish I had when I began my journey.

I didn't know any other trans people, so didn't have a big sister figure to ask questions and guide me through transition. This is the case for most trans people, so I wanted to create a book of information and inspiration for the next generation of girls so they don't have to struggle the way I did. The book gives them almost 100 sisters until they find their sisters in real life. It's an encyclopedia of trans excellence.

WCT: How did you go about collecting submissions for the book?

CC: Without a big sister figure to guide me through the early days of transition I was desperate for information and inspiration, so I spent a lot of time on the internet absorbing everything trans-related and became kind of an expert on trans women. I've probably read every book/watched every film/read every Wikipedia page about every trans woman ever.

So when I was offered my book deal three years after having the idea for the book, I began reaching out to the women whose books I'd read/whose films I'd watched/whose Wikipedia pages I'd read, and asked them if they'd be up for writing a letter of sisterly advice for the book and, to my surprise, a few of them said yes—almost 100, in fact!

I messaged probably around a thousand women, and anyone who replied to me is in the book, so really I can't take credit for the mix it was just fate/luck. I was super-conscious of the book being a diverse representation of the trans experience though so I made sure to reach out to women of all races, creeds and sexualities from all over the world in hope that there's a big sister figure in the book every reader can relate to.

WCT: What were the most common or recurring themes in the letters?

CC: When I reached out to the women I told them they can write whatever they want, so the fact that there are so many parallels and recurring themes in the letters is very telling. I think it illustrates how universal our experience is. The letters come in all different shapes and sizes, from essays to poems, capturing the diversity of the trans experience. But as different as the women and their stories are, there is one common thing that runs through each letter and the veins of each woman featured in this book: resilience. We are some strong-ass women.

Almost every letter in this book contains stories of prejudice, rejection and hate. But despite all the hardship we girls face, we still choose to exist, bravely, boldly, and beautifully. It's an achievement to simply survive in this world as a trans woman, but as the women in this book show, not only do we survive—we thrive.

WCT: Who is your ideal audience for To My Trans Sisters and what do you want readers coming away from the book feeling?

CC: The majority of the reviews ( which have been very good, just saying—4.5 stars, average ) have been from cis people, saying the book really helped them to understand our community a bit better. I think the parallels and recurring themes you mention really highlight the hardships we face as trans women which I think is a good way of humanizing us and our stories, and bringing the focus back to what matters—people are constantly debating about things like toilets, things that in the scheme of things don't matter. Our lives matter, and the sad reality is that the numbers of trans murders are going up every year.

WCT: You mention that self-acceptance was the biggest challenge you faced personally in being trans, but that it changed when you were 21. What happened?

CC: I really struggled with accepting myself growing up. I'd been bullied for being feminine pretty much my entire life, and I had internalized this hatred and truly, truly hated myself. I think being working class where being a 'man' is really important also had a big part to play in that—I was from a family of tough boys, and grew up on a tough council estate full of tough boys, and went to a tough all boys school.

I wanted so badly to be like the other boys, the boys who bullied me. I tried everything to suppress my femininity, I started working out, I deepened my voice, I stopped listening to Britney Spears and forced myself to listen to music I hated. Naturally, I became really suicidal. I knew deep down I was trans and it got to the point where I was so unhappy that it was either transition or die. The shift in trans representation media played a big part in me finally feeling confident and comfortable enough in myself to transition. Prior to 2014 the only time you'd really see trans women on TV would be as punchlines or punching bags, so seeing women like Carmen Carrera, Laverne Cox and Janet Mock in the media was really validating, they were beautiful, intelligent, successful but, most importantly, happy. It was the first time I realized I could be all these things.

WCT: I am in love with your organization Nail Transphobia, Can you explain it briefly for readers?

CC: So Nail Transphobia ( NT ) is a campaign I've been running for four years now, which sees me traveling around the UK with my pop-up nail salon ( usually to museums, galleries, universities, festivals, etc ). offering the public free manicures, giving people the chance to sit down and have a chat with a trans person.

They can ask me questions and I can teach them how to be an ally, or we can just talk about the X-factor or whatever. What it's really about is just having a chat—humanizing the issue a bit for them—because people often have a lot of misconceptions about trans people without having actually met one.

WCT: How did the idea for educational manicures come about?

CC: Painting someone's nails is a personal and intimate experience, I'm literally holding hands with a stranger I've just met, and with the whole purpose of my campaign being to humanize the issue, this couldn't be a more perfect medium.

The beautiful thing about my campaign is that with the nature of the conversation I'm also able to touch them on more than just a physical level, I'm able to touch them on a deeper level too, and hope that they'll go away with more than just a mani—they'll go away an ally. I always say my campaign is about changing hearts and minds a nail at a time.

My campaign is really all about conversation, nails are just my way of starting that conversation, with someone who normally wouldn't feel engaged in that conversation. I thought nails would be the perfect medium because of the way people speak to their nail lady at their local salon like they do their hairdresser or barber or whatever. I think when you talk one on one with someone you don't have a lot in common with, someone you might not understand or might have preconceived ideas about- the misconceptions you have about them slip away and you're able to see that you have a lot more in common than you do differences. Conversation is powerful. Nails are just my catalyst for conversation.

WCT: And the proceeds from NT go to teaching free self-defense classes for trans and non-binary femmes? Is this effort going global, because it should. We need this in the United States.

CC: I actually did my first stateside event [this past] summer; I was brought out to do nails at NYC Pride, which was amazing! Like you say it's a conversation that needs to be happening not just in the U.K. but globally, especially in the U.S., in fact. So if anyone wants to bring me back out, drop me a line!

WCT: Why do you think there is so much transphobia and violence against trans people?

CC: Prejudice comes from fear and misunderstanding; that's why I do what I do. I think when someone who might have misconceptions about trans people actually sits down and has a chat with a trans person, they're able to see that there's not much to understand and certainly nothing to be scared of/hate. The media has a large part to play, religion has a large part to play, the government has a large part to play—if we tackle the problem from the top ( media, religion, government ) it will have a trickle-down effect. These institutions have blood on their hands, otherwise.

WCT: You have spoken about trans issues on TV and before Parliament. You've written on trans issues, and both The Guardian and The Independent named you as one of the most influential and inspirational LGBTQ people in the U.K. What's next for you?

CC: A sleep would be nice. After that, though, I'd love to start actually doing more for trans people, like Nail Transphobia has just turned four and I've spent the last years focusing my efforts on cisgender people ( people who aren't trans ) and while I still want to keep going with Nail Transphobia ( because evidently there's still a need for it ), I'd like to focus more of my efforts on doing more for trans people, the direct victims of transphobia. I'm very lucky to be getting so much good press; it gives me leverage to do more tangible good with my campaign, so thank you so much for the support!

WCT: Thanks so much Charlie, for the interview and for your ongoing efforts. You are so inspiring.

For more about Charlie Craggs, her book and her ongoing work, check out NailTranpshobia.com; on social media, see @charlie_craggs .


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