For our LGBTQ issue, we spoke to model Munroe Bergdorf on the rights of Black trans women.
By Juno Kelly.
Munroe Bergdorf is feeling disillusioned. I call the female transgender activist on December 19, less than a week after it was announced that the British prime minister, Boris Johnson, beat the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, in a landslide Conservative victory in the 2019 election. Corbyn’s defeat also signified the death of his party’s manifesto, a document brimming with policies aimed at bettering the lives of the country’s LGBTQ+ community. Bergdorf is a staunch Corbyn supporter and evidently finds it difficult to put any kind of positive spin on the Western world’s political reality. “Donald Trump’s just been impeached and we’ve got the biggest Tory majority since Thatcherism. We’re leaving the European Union, we’re in a very uncertain period of time… ”
Bergdorf is a 32-year-old documentary filmmaker, model, philanthropist, and transgender/racial activist. In 2018, she released the documentary “What Makes a Woman?”, which offered a raw insight into her experience with facial feminization surgery, a popular procedure undergone by trans women to help combat gender dysphoria.
Over the phone, the soft-spoken Bergdorf explains that, after a life of feeling different, it was when she was 18 years old that she came to understand that medically transitioning might be within her grasp. “I took a long time to think about it. I lived pretty much through a nonbinary lens. I didn’t have the language at that time to describe how I was feeling or how I identified, so I just called it drag. I still kind of think all genders are drag at the end of the day.”
Although she has become a bastion of strength and resilience, Bergdorf did not have an easy ride. She developed an eating disorder as she was going through puberty, which reached its climax when she moved out of the family home aged 19. She is privy to the increasing commonality of eating disorders among transgender youths. “I’ve spoken to other trans girls and they pretty much say they just wanted to stop their bodies developing into a male puberty… Starving away the muscle mass, starving away the broadness. It was pretty brutal, actually.”
It was Bergdorf’s medical transition that, by her own admission, saved her, not just because it significantly lessened her body dysmorphia, but because hormone therapy requires adequate nutrition to work effectively. “I just thought there’s no point in me transitioning medically if I’m not gonna start eating. Also, it makes you ravenously hungry.”
Although social media plays a significant role in her engagement with the public, Bergdorf is conscious of the threat that it poses. Cancel culture (the inclination society has to banish anyone who says something problematic or politically incorrect) has been exacerbated by social media’s reach and is something Bergdorf imagines acts as a hindrance to social progression. “What is the end goal here?” she asks. “Are we going to end up with an island of people that we’ve cancelled? We need to be moving towards a world that doesn’t necessarily cancel people but holds people accountable, but also allows them to get better.”
Over the past few years, the fashion industry has championed LGBTQ+ models and actors, which, combined with a push for political correctness, has led segments of society to garner the impression that equality has been realized. “Media representation is showing a shift in societal consciousness, and that is markable,” says Bergdorf, “but societal consciousness isn’t reflective of society. We need to bear in mind that the media often moves faster than actual society. I think that the fashion industry may be paying the trans community equity rather than equality, to try to elevate us to a point where we can be.” Bergdorf is painfully aware, however, that although images of glamorous trans individuals are pervasive, it is not the responsibility of her, nor other trans celebrities, to be “indicative of all trans people.” What she does hope for, however, is to exist as “a symbol of what hard work and resilience and tenacity can do if you’re trans.”
In keeping with most of the conversations held over the Christmas period in the UK, our discussion circles back to politics. Bergdorf’s concern about the impact a Conservative government will have on the trans community in the UK is apparent. “I don’t see much inclusion, even in their manifesto. There was hardly anything to do with the LGBT community, which is shocking because there’s been an elevated number of hate crimes. Trans hate crimes have gone up by 81% [in Great Britain]—to not even mention that?” The action Munroe wishes to see taken is threefold: “For starters, they can stop sitting on the Gender Recognition Act and actually do something about it.” The 2004 Act is due for reform to make it easier for trans individuals to have their gender legally recognized. “Start getting involved with communities and start championing our services which receive no government funding,” she continues. “Start denouncing the elevated levels of transphobia in the British media.”
And what can members of the wider society do to facilitate change, I ask. “One of the biggest things you could do is give a trans person a job. Because the unemployment numbers, especially for transgender women of color, especially transgender black women, are forcing us into sex work. Which results in higher suicide rates and murders by straight men who find trans women attractive, also known as trans amorous.”
However, Bergdorf wishes to raise a point that is often overlooked: If workplaces intend on hiring members of the LGBTQ+ community, then they have an obligation to make sure that the environment in question does not foster hostility against said individuals. “Make sure that your workplace is LGBT friendly before you make it LGBT inclusive. There’s no point in advertising a job to the LGBTQ+ community if it’s not a good place for a queer person to work, if it’s harboring a homophobic environment that a queer person would find intimidating.”
The British media is another area of concern for Bergdorf. Transphobia isn’t just something the government lets media outlets get away with, but something she believes they embolden. “A lot of the transphobia in the British press isn’t even about trans people, it’s about weaponizing fear. I think pushing the narrative of trans women being a danger to cisgender women is beneficial for them because it paints us as a threat, and if there’s a threat, then they can ‘keep people safe’ and they can push a return to traditionalism… At the moment they’re just letting the country run riot and weaponize transness as a motive for their own end.”
Bergdorf has experienced the British tabloids’ transphobia firsthand. Since her meteoric rise to fame, the media have slut-shamed her, attempted to discredit her, and robbed her of opportunity. “If you want to build a narrative of somebody, you can make anybody look however you want,” she says.
Reckoning that the public shaming she experiences often comes from a lack of understanding of feminism, she says, “You can’t speak about feminism without speaking about female sexuality, and women’s access to their own bodies. It’s fully within my right as a woman, as a trans woman, as a queer woman, as a black woman, to be in control of my body and celebrate my body. If people think that me posing in underwear is against feminism, then they’ve got a very uninformed idea of what constitutes feminism.”
Although she’s achieved more than most people do in a lifetime, Bergdorf is just getting started. This year, she will be focusing on her Instagram Goddess Platform, designed to share the stories of marginalized people firsthand. She will also be working closely with the UN, particularly in an attempt to end female genital mutilation. “I’ve just started working with UN Women UK. I’m looking forward to throwing myself into that and hopefully making spaces safer for all people.”
To help, Munroe Bergdorf suggests donating or lending your skill set to charities and nonprofits that support the trans community, including Gendered Intelligence, the Albert Kennedy Trust, and Mermaids.
Image credit: Luke Nugent