What it is to be trans in this world is often discussed in terms of bodies – trans bodies are a problem to be fixed or a secret to be concealed. The trans body is isolated and marked out as fundamentally alien from the society in which it exists. It is singled out for scrutiny. In Cecilia Golding and Nick Finegan’s new film “The Swimming Club”, which follows participants at Tags (‘Trans and Gender non-conforming Swimmers’ Group) in London, one of the swimmers in the club explains how the scrutiny of trans people’s bodies and their meaning quickly transforms into the language of oppression: “They say that we’re unnatural, that we’re perverted, that we’re not genuine people.” When we spend so much time focusing on the bodies of trans people – a discussion which usually centres around the physical process of transition – we fail to scrutinise the cruelty and indifference of the spaces around them. Public space is not neutral and never shared equally – in order for some to enjoy freedom, others find their own suppressed. When I speak of my transition, I increasingly find it less interesting to talk about how I have changed but how the world around me did. Places that once felt comfortable – the bus stop, the gym, the beach – suddenly became places of fear. Where I had once been pleasantly invisible, I was now on show and up for discussion.
While anti-trans bathroom bills and other legislative attempts to restrict trans freedom in the US do receive news coverage, many do not realise the extent to which trans people already remove themselves from public space, quietly and without discussion. According to the Trans Mental Health Study (2012), more than half of trans people in the UK have avoided going to gyms or accessing other leisure facilities. While this study doesn’t provide every participant’s reason for avoiding spaces many would take for granted, it’s reasonable to assume that trans people are imposing restrictions on themselves out of fear of the ridicule and shame which is imposed on them. Exercise, we are told, is a great remedy for many ailments of both the mind and body – a way to unwind and focus while improving our health. Yet for trans people, exercise is another daunting prospect – full of gendered changing rooms, anxiety about what to wear and fear of mockery. Golding and Finegan’s film shows us a brief oasis in this fraught landscape. A place where trans people – who are rarely allowed to enjoy their bodies – do so together. The ‘together’ is important, one realises as “The Swimming Club” progresses. Shame works by isolation and in this film we see Tags combatting it with the freedom, fun and laughter of community.