Paris Lees has made a lot of firsts.
She was the first openly transgender panelist on the BBC’s Question Time, in which members of the public grill politicians and opinion makers on the major issues of the day.
She was also the first openly transgender presenter on Britain’s Channel 4 and Radio 1.
“But Vogue is a bit more glamorous, isn’t it?” Lees joked, in an interview with The Daily Beast—a reference to her most recent precedent: becoming the first openly transgender woman to appear in British Vogue. Lees appears alongside other female activists in a February feature entitled “Meet the New Suffragettes” that marks 100 years since Britain began allowing some women to vote.
For Lees—a journalist, activist, and perhaps the most well-known transgender person in England—the photo shoot could not have come at a better time.
“I feel like it really sets the tone for the year here,” she told The Daily Beast.
2017 saw near-constant attacks on transgender people—especially transgender youth—from all corners of the British press. It has been “absolutely relentless,” in Lee’s words.
As journalist Dawn Foster summarized it, in a scathing response to a Sunday Times column on transgender children, “for a long period many newspapers have carried scaremongering stories and disinformation about the lives of trans people in the U.K., now centering on the treatment of children identifying as trans.”
Writing for The Guardian, Owen Jones called this phenomenon a “media-driven moral panic over trans people,” comparing the recent rash of transphobic front page articles and op-eds to the fear-mongering that took place around gay people in Britain in the 1980s—a comparison that leaps to Lee’s mind as well: “I just think that what we’re seeing now is what we saw with gay people twenty, thirty years ago.”
Transphobia remains a problem in the American press as well, of course, but the sheer volume of anti-transgender articles in British newspapers has indeed been striking relative to their number. That hasn’t made Lees’ journalistic career an easy one.
“How do you critique and reform and improve an industry that you’re trying to get a foothold in?” she asked. “It’s this constant battle. When a newspaper that I’ve written for and would like to write for again—when they do something really transphobic, where does that leave me? Do I criticize them? Or do I keep my mouth shut?”
At this point, by her account, Lees has written for every major British newspaper except the Daily Mail—and also criticized each of them at some point.
Last November, for example, she called out the transphobia in her country’s press in a Guardian column, singling out the popular British tabloids in particular for their “manufactured outrage” around transgender issues. Lees has written columns for The Guardian since 2014. But Lees has also used her platform at other outlets like Vice to critique commentaries on transgender people that have appeared in The Guardian.
When progressive critics ask Lees how she can abide writing for newspapers that also publish anti-transgender articles, her response, as she told The Daily Beast, is simple: “Show me a newspaper that hasn’t printed the most disgusting, misleading, horrific lies about trans people. There isn’t one!”
On paper, the United Kingdom should be a much more welcoming place for transgender people than the United States: The Gender Recognition Act of 2004 instituted a process for people in the U.K. to legally change genders; in the U.S., laws around legal gender change are a bizarre patchwork that varies by state, and by identity document.
The U.K.’s Equality Act of 2010 covered “transsexual persons” as a protected class; the U.S. still does not have federal-level protections for transgender people that are expressly written into its civil rights legislation—and, the way things are going, probably won’t for years to come.
But a new report from YouGov and the British LGBT organization Stonewall shows that this legal recognition hasn’t exactly translated into cultural acceptance, with 48 percent of transgender respondents to a survey saying that they are uncomfortable using public restrooms, 44 percent saying that they “avoid certain streets” due to safety concerns, and 25 percent reporting that they have experienced housing discrimination.
“I get shouted at every single time I leave my house and threatened at least once a week,” one respondent said.
Another shared that the “pace of change has been amazing” in the U.K. but noted that the “hate from the media against trans [people]” has been increasing disturbingly in the last six months.”
Stories like these prompted Stonewall chief executive Ruth Hunt to announce in a HuffPost article that “Britain is no longer considered a safe part of the world for trans people to live in,” especially in light of the fact that a British transgender woman was recently given asylum in New Zealand after detailing the discrimination she faced back home.
Lees can speculate at length about the unique factors that are perpetuating transphobia on her side of the Atlantic, like the popularity of sensationalistic gossip rags among a wider readership, or the aging—and therefore more conservative—audience for U.K. print newspapers, or even the particularly British notion that people shouldn’t try to rise above their station.
Certain transphobic strains of second-wave feminism, Lees also noted, seem to be taken more seriously in Britain than they are in the States.
“That sort of virulent transphobia has got a certain respectability to it in some quarters,” she told The Daily Beast. “It’s got a certain cachet.”
But ultimately, Lees points to the fact that the U.S. saw the emergence of several transgender public figures in 2014—a year that Time famously labeled the “transgender tipping point”—and the U.K. couldn’t match that cultural momentum at the time.
“I just think we had our tipping point slightly later,” Lees told The Daily Beast. “I do think that someone like Laverne [Cox], she’s kind of the tent pole that raises everyone else up—and I think we needed a few more high-profile people to hold our tents up.”
Of course, Lees herself is one of those very people who has been lifting the rhetorical tent for British transgender people over the last half decade.
She has written eloquently in Guardian essays about her own background, growing up poor in Nottinghamshire, serving a short prison sentence for robbery in her teens, fighting to break into the monied London journalism scene while attending university, and relying on money from her boyfriend and income from sex work to make ends meet for a time.
“I’m neither proud nor particularly ashamed of my past, but there you have it,” Lees once wrote. “I had to make tough choices to gain a foothold in journalism—a competitive industry, which often seems, like much of Britain, to be run by posh people for the benefit of posh people.”
She transitioned at university and began scoring bylines, eventually becoming the go-to British name for transgender issues in the mid-2010s. Lees never could have predicted at first what would come of her writing—or that it would land her in the pages of Vogue.
“I just knew that there were people who had voices in public life and I wanted to be one of them,” she said. “Because there wasn’t anybody at that time championing trans people in the U.K.—there were only people insulting us and lying about us.”
Lees used to gaze longingly across the pond at the informal network of prominent American transgender woman—at Laverne Cox and Janet Mock and Laura Jane Grace—and wish that she had a support system of her own.
She did not, however, envy the atrocious state of transgender people’s access to health care in the United States nor would she have felt safe living in a country with so much fatal anti-transgender violence.
“I have to say, it’s one thing living in a deeply transphobic society but living in a deeply transphobic society that’s also quite trigger happy? That would terrify me,” Lees told The Daily Beast.
But now, Lees does have a support system at home—and there are other British transgender voices like Shon Faye and young adult author Juno Dawson coming into the public eye who are adding to the work that she has done to advocate for acceptance.
“I don’t feel like I need to respond to everything [anymore] because there will be someone somewhere that can kind of champion trans people and defend our dignity,” Lees told The Daily Beast. “So in that sense the landscape really is very different to what it was even just a few years ago.”
This year, there is even a transgender cast member on the U.K. version of Celebrity Big Brother: BBC presenter India Willoughby. Although Willoughby had a tumultuous time in the house—becoming the first to be kicked out last week after a week of conflicts with her housemates, which she perceived to be centered around her gender identity—Lees still thinks that Britain is learning some valuable lessons from the season.
“I think this year has had some really special moments with Courtney Act (the drag persona of Shane Jenek) and India Willoughby in particular explaining the difference between a trans woman and a drag queen to the British public—and you’ve got to understand that many people still don’t get even basic distinctions like that,” she told The Daily Beast.
Increasingly, Lees feels a strange disconnect between her ordinary—but still quite fabulous—life and the unusually strong invective she encounters on a daily basis for simply championing the cause of transgender people.
“I’m a very traditional British kind of girl,” Lees reported. I’m actually quite old-fashioned and I just live off biscuits and tea like an old grandma.”
And yet, when she logs onto Twitter, there are people cruelly calling her a “man.”
“I find it really odd because people in shops refer to me as ‘miss,’” Lees said.
“Or ‘madam’ now, increasingly,” she added with a laugh.
As the young woman gets just a bit older, her thoughts are increasingly turning to a different sort of first: the first generation of children who will “know a world where trans people were included in magazines, appeared on television to talk about things other than being trans, won awards, were invited to parities, [and] ran for politics.”
Transphobia might be intense in the present but Lees reckons it can’t last forever. The Vogue feature is just one sign that this prejudice has an expiration date.
“The door’s been unbolted now and I don’t think that you can close it,” she told The Daily Beast. “I think that there are too many teenagers now that are saying, ‘We’re here, we want to live our lives as who we are.’ And I think that’s fantastic.”