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EDIT54

Talking TV, trans visibility and sex with Paris Lees

EDIT54

We go deep with the UK’s premier trans campaigner on selling sex to get through uni, the changing landscape for trans people and the state of the stale, homogeneous UK media

As I sit down to interview Paris Lees – presenter, provocateur and Britain’s premier trans campaigner – I mumble something about being a bit nervous because she is also a journalist and because I have never interviewed a friend before. Full disclaimer: we know each other. I start by attempting to make a joke: asking her when she is going to retire to make way for my own rise as a fellow ‘of the moment’ trans journalist, when we are interrupted by the builders who are working in my house.  At full volume, Lees asks me “have you offered them a cup of tea and a blowjob?”

It’s a wig-snatching change in tone and a re-direction of the conversation which has characterised Lees’ media career to date. When she appeared on the BBC’s flagship political programme, Question Time (one of the youngest panellists and the first openly transgender person to do so), she praised then-Labour leader Ed Milliband’s performance in Prime Minister’s Questions by saying he had “real oak in his penis”. In May of this year she appeared before the House of Commons committee on prostitution law reform to give evidence about her own past experiences as a sex worker – during her questioning she asked the Member of Parliament for Kingston and Surbiton, James Berry, if he had ever been in a position where he had had to sell his body for sex – causing a visible fluster. A month later, she slapped down broadcaster David Starkey on Newsnight for stealing her airtime by telling him he was a “privileged white man”, as he consistently spoke over her during a debate on the EU referendum result.

“I feel duty-bound to remind people that I may have a platform now but I literally begged, stole and borrowed to get here. I prostituted myself to get through university – that’s why I made that dedication” – Paris Lees on dedicating her degree to sex workers

During our conversation, it’s clear that her desire to advocate on behalf of sex workers is especially fierce – last month she received an honorary doctorate from the University of Brighton and dedicated it to sex workers, saying in her speech: “Sex work is part of my past now, but the fact remains that I would not have got my degree and forged the career I enjoy without making some tough choices back in the day. I would like to use the prestige of this award to undo even just a tiny bit of the very great stigma sex workers still face.” When I ask her about this, she becomes even more emphatic. “I feel duty-bound to remind people that I may have a platform now but I literally begged, stole and borrowed to get here. I prostituted myself to get through university – that’s why I made that dedication. People don’t want to think about it: that there are real cultural and economic barriers preventing people from certain backgrounds from enjoying the benefits of our supposedly egalitarian society. Everyone loves talking about ‘free speech’ – it’s like, do you have any idea what I had to do be in a position to use that free speech and to enjoy it in public life? I was an escort!”

Lees has been very open about the details of her life that stand out in the public school, Oxbridge graduate, middle-class-dominated media. Growing up on a council estate in Nottinghamshire, Lees has written that she was badly bullied by her dad and at school for being feminine. She began having sex for money at the age of 14 and, when she and an older boy robbed a client, she was sentenced to two years in a young offenders institute – for boys. “I’ve been invited to some fairly Establishment things in the past few years – I’ve been to Downing Street, Kensington Palace and the Oxford Union but I’m not here to sanitise my past or pretend I’m purer than the driven snow. I could have sold myself as a clean-cut equality campaigner but I didn’t want to do that. I’m not.”

Perhaps this striking anomalous background explains why Lees is the definition of incorrigible. Throughout our interview, she displays her particularly ingenious mixture of focussed, incisive critique with the occasional foray into bombast “Yes, we’re aspirational now – you owe me all your orgasms, bitch!” she tells me when I ask her if she thinks she’s helped to destigmatise trans people and sex. I laugh and she continues, “seriously – in the last couple of years I’ve dated some nice middle-class boys and something has changed. I think middle-class mums see it almost as a badge of honour having their sons dating a trans woman – it’s cooler than if he was gay! Soon guys will be saying ‘I’m dating one of those trans women’ down the pub and all their mates will cheer”. I keep laughing and start to nod. This is manifestly not true and mirrors none of my experiences of dating, but it doesn’t seem to matter – the conversation has moved on and Lees has already planted the idea.

“I want to see trans people writing the headlines, holding the camera, making the decisions themselves” – Paris Lees

She argues this is what you need to succeed in the British media which, perhaps surprisingly (perhaps not), she is repeatedly derisive of. “The news is – increasingly – an entertainment product. It always had aspirations of being a public resource for the public good but it’s not,” she insists. She cites the public discontent that led to Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump as evidence of a public distrust of the media, both here and in the US. “A lot of the things I’m invited to do – they just want a fight! All those news shows have pretensions of being serious but they’re just Jeremy Kyle for posh people. It’s obverse journalism – there’s no follow up on anything, no going back to look at things implemented five years ago and whether it worked. They’re always arguing about the new; then they completely forget about it.” She says her scepticism comes directly from growing up in the shadow of an often transphobic media; “I used to read stuff in papers about people like me that was absolute nonsense, written by very plausible sounding, middle-class people with plenty of letters after their names saying, ‘we know what’s really happening here, our opinion is important.’ But their opinion was bollocks and I knew it because they were speaking me and my life. So now, I don’t really trust anyone in the media – I think, ‘well, what do you know? Just because you went to a nice school doesn’t mean you have a fucking clue.’”

Though her relationship with her chosen battleground may be antagonistic, Lees’ emergence as a fresh undergraduate in her 20s determined to change the media representation of trans people has been meteorically successful. She is most proud of co-founding the educational project All About Trans with fellow campaigners Nathalie McDermott, Sarah Lennox and Josephine Shaw. The organisation’s modus is simple: they take ordinary trans volunteers into some of the biggest media organisations in the country: tabloids and TV channels to meet producers and editors. The All About Trans team recognised very few people in the media would have met a trans person and therefore had no clue or care about misrepresenting them. Now, hundreds of media professionals have at least had a face to face conversation with a trans person – and this has led to a range of trans content being commissioned in recent years, most notably the BBC comedy Boy Meets Girl.

“She was the original – all that sexual energy and really owning it and saying ‘I’m not interested in your pointless sexual taboos’” – Paris Lees on Madonna

As someone who is also trans and also a journalist I first was drawn to Lees before I had even met her because I had seen how she started to change the media landscape in Britain and open doors for other trans people. However, she believes that the next step is to get young trans people working in the media themselves. “I want to see trans people writing the headlines, holding the camera, making the decisions themselves”.

A few years on, Lees has written for most major newspapers, has a column at VICE, regularly appears on television, and is finishing her memoir (she also tells me just as we begin our interview that her work will be archived by the Bishopsgate Institute). In a huge step for trans media representation she also has her own TV show for BBC Three – called, of course: The Paris Lees Sex Show. in it she interviews the visually impaired community about erotica and porn and chats to Years and Years lead singer, Olly Alexander, about his own sex life… in the bath. Alexander, she insists, is part of a new generation of people in public life who are “so clued up on sexuality and gender”. She also points to Andreja Pejić, whom she has interviewed, and Dazed 100 winner Hari Nef “she’s on the cover of Elle magazine – I just keep seeing trans people being so fucking cool right now.” Lees also repeatedly cites her personal icon Madonna: “She was the original – all that sexual energy and really owning it and saying ‘I’m not interested in your pointless sexual taboos’”.

 

Nevertheless, she also says there is an important aspect to her new show and its fun, sex-positive approach to unconsidered sexual tastes and subcultures. “We think we know it all about sex now because of the internet but there’s so much stuff we don’t even know we don’t know – I’m used to being the person educating people around me and in the episode where I met blind people I realised I was a grown-ass woman who had never really spoken to a blind person before. One of the women explained to me how using her walking stick exposed her to sexual assault because it said ‘I’m vulnerable’ – that would never have occurred to me.”

Lees has, of course, come in for her fair share of criticism, too. Not just from obvious foes like transphobic and anti-sex work feminists but from within the trans community and those on the political Left via social media. I tell her I can recall she got a lot of shit on Twitter for writing for The Sun – given its right-wing, crypto-racist tendencies. “I mean it’s not that I’m above self-criticism: sometimes I look at plenty of organisations I may work with or for and think “should I do this” but then I remember – I can’t fight all battles on all fronts and my focus has always been raising awareness of trans people at all costs and, more recently, speaking up for sex workers and working class people.” Online criticism, particularly as a trans person, can be tough, I say (speaking from my own experience). Lees waves this notion away: “I’ve been criticised for so many different things and I’m quite impervious to it, actually. I knew when I started out that that was the deal and that’s why I never have much time for people who complain about criticism. No success without criticism. Give me more.”

It is the firmness of purpose that is most admirable about Lees, she repeatedly re-states her own clear mission statement for her own career. “I’ve been welcomed into the milieu of the people who used to patronise and speak over people like me. They use trans people as an academic data point and fabricate these absurd ‘debates’ like whether or not people like me should be able to use the women’s toilets, and then go back to their nice big homes, and forget all about it. There’s no emotional cost to them personally. It’s these middle-class people who just love debate for debate’s sake and I’m here to say – shut up. This doesn’t affect you! Being trans is my life, not an intellectual wank.” 

Surely, I say, she must enjoy many of the benefits that come with being a media personality now? A lot of people become successful just to get laid, so I ask Lees, was that a factor in cultivating her sexy image? “Yeah. And it worked!” She pauses and adds, “but also, and this may sound petty, but I don’t care: I hope I’ve made some of the people who used to patronise people like us, with all their stupid prejudices, feel really embarrassed. I’m from a council estate and no one gave me anything. I’ve seen people who have had every advantage handed to them and they’re not doing nearly as well as me or all the other trans people smashing it right now. I hope they feel really stupid now to be honest.”