Charlie Craggs joins writer and Black Lives Matter UK activist Kuchenga Shenje to discuss her debut book, which aims to uplift and support trans women
I first met Charlie Craggs in Spring 2016 when we were recording a feature on The One Show with Munroe Bergdorf. She runs Nail Transphobia, which tackles transphobia through nail art. She travels around the UK with her pop up nail salon to museums, galleries and festivals and offers the public free manicures, giving people the chance to sit down and have a chat with a trans person.
We bonded over chats on the phone, giggly and salacious hang-outs and a blissful day doing a photo shoot for self-defence classes for trans women with the late photographer Khadija Saye. I sat down with her on the weekend of the release of the anthology she edited and asked me to be a part of called To My Trans Sisters.
The book, described as an “invaluable resource for any trans person” assembles more than 70 letters written by trans women, sharing advice they wished they had been given when they were younger. My own essay is a spiritual dedication to the black trans women who usher me along in my transition with wisdom, compassion and the realest of real talk.
Charlie and I sat down to talk about everything from transphobia to Harry Styles in the context of the anthology:
First things first, who was your favourite Sugababe and why?
Charlie Craggs: Obviously Mutya. Mutya is like my goal of transition. Like, who I see myself being when I’m fully formed as the woman I want to be.
What was it like growing up in Ladbroke Grove?
Charlie Craggs: Growing up in Ladbroke Grove was a mixed bag. I wouldn’t wanna have grown up anywhere else. I love being a Ladbroke Grove girl. But it was mixed because it’s like, I’ve got amazing friends who I’ve been friends with my whole life from the area. They’re my closest friends. I had a real support system there. But I also got a lot of crap there… Or I’m gonna say shit, because crap sounds so weird!
I saw your video online with your mum at her uni graduation. As a moment, it seemed really redemptive. Tell me about your relationship with your mum
Charlie Craggs: I’m very lucky that she’s been such an important figure in my transition and my life. She’s always been the best mum I could wish for. She just always supported me. When I was growing up I was very feminine from a very young age. She would just let me be that person. I think that’s very special considering how it is for trans people. Especially for someone from a religious and a working-class background. Very Irish Roman Catholic sorta thing. My mum is very Catholic. She was one of the Eucharist ministers at church. Considering how trans people are treated with people still being disowned from their families and it’s often because of a religious thing I feel very blessed.
“I wanted to create that source of information and inspiration. I call this book an anthology of trans excellence. The girls and the women that I literally clung on to” – Charlie Craggs
Where did the idea for the book come from?
Charlie Craggs: The idea for the book came from just me reflecting on my own transition. I just wanted to create the book I wish I had at the start of mine, to help the next generation of girls embark on their journeys into womanhood. So that they wouldn’t have to be on their own. They would have their own sisters.
Most people just don’t know trans people in their day to day life. I didn’t know any trans people when I transitioned. I only met my first trans person when I was like a year or two in. You feel quite alone and you don’t have anyone to ask those questions. You can’t ask your mum or your cis friends because they just don’t know the answers. So, I wanted to create that source of information and inspiration. I call this book an anthology of trans excellence. The girls and the women that I literally clung on to. I researched them and clung on to their stories in early transition, I just didn’t know any other trans people so I read every Wikipedia page. I read every autobiography. I watched every film. I watched every documentary. I watched all the YouTube videos. It’s like a place where I’ve collected all those amazing women to tell the next generation: “Yeah, these are the women who you need to know about.”
With all of the negative media representation, we are just often told we are not enough. And that’s from society as well as the media. From our government, from our parents, from our lovers. So I think it’s really important to see that we are enough. That we are amazing and we have changed the world. I always say we’re not just punching bags and punch lines. We have changed the world and these women in the book show that. They’re excellent.
Tell me about the process of editing. What was that like?
Charlie Craggs: Editing the book was really amazing. Editing the book was like a really healing experience for me as a trans woman because I was talking to my idols. Literally, women I have looked up to from day one of my transition. Women who have got me through my transition, shaped my transition. I was getting to talk to them and reading their letters of advice it was really healing to see how universal the trans experience is regardless of the fact that the women are scattered all over the world.
I’m gonna ask you about transphobia now. What transphobic incident are you most proud of yourself for having survived?
Charlie Craggs: There was a time really early on in transition when I was attacked at a bus stop on my way home by a bunch of boys. It was really horrible and no one stood up for me. It really shook me and shaped how I saw the world as a trans woman. I was like “Oh sweet?!” We’re at a packed bus stop of 20, 30 people not a single person said a word. That was even before it got violent. Anyone could have said stood up and said something.
But when it comes to the most transphobic incidents that I’m proud of surviving I would probably say school. I mean it was quite broadly transphobic. Then again, I think the word would be ‘femme-phobic’ because I was just bullied for being feminine. I never said I was gay. People assumed I was gay. I never came out and said “Oh, I’m gay everyone.” I was trans. I didn’t know I was trans though. I just felt like a girl. I was assigned male and I like men, but I was just always a feminine being. So, I was really persecuted for being feminine in school because I went to a boys school, quite a tough one. To have survived seven years of that, every day being called ‘batty boy’, ‘chi chi man’, all that stuff. That was the biggest test of my life. And to go through that very young, from 11 to 18. It has definitely helped me in my transition in that when I’m having tough times – when I’m getting shit in the street or when I’m having a hard time with the Gender Clinic – I always remind myself that ‘You have gone through so much. You went through seven years of absolute hell. If you can get through that, you can get through anything’. I’m the strongest person in my mind. I can get through anything. I think that was the biggest test.
Who was the first trans woman that you began to look up to and were inspired by?
Charlie Craggs: I would say Nadia from Big Brother. And she WON! I think that was in 2005 or 2006. It was insane to have an out trans woman winning. I just remember I was watching it as I was being bullied in school and it was so important to me to see that she wasn’t being passive. She would give as good as she got. She would stand up for herself and she would shout: “WHA YOU GONNA DOOO?! WHA YOU GONNA DOOO?!” at that shitty little Scottish man. Whassisname? JASON! That’s it! I hope you’re reading this: “WHA YOU GONNA DOOO?!”
So how about gender dysphoria? Your piece in Teen Vogue about what you did before hormones and surgery to honour your femininity, it was extensive. How did you visualise your future self alone in your bedroom?
Charlie Craggs: I’m still visualising my future self in my bedroom. I think girls who are starting in their transitions, in the way that I did, will look at girls in the media, like me and you and other girls and judge themselves compared to us and think “Oh? Why don’t I look like that? Why am I so ugly? Why can’t I pass?” and all that. But I think it’s important to say that you might Google me and I look really pretty but babes, I don’t look pretty in the morning. I don’t look like that when I take my make up off at the end of the day. I think it’s important to actually say that, for the girls that need to hear that.
How important is passing as a cis woman to you?
Charlie Craggs: I guess if I’m being totally honest it is important to me. And that’s sad… but at least I can own it. Maybe there will come a point where it will mean less to me and that’s cool, but right now it does mean a lot to me. I’m not even gonna fucking lie. It fucking does mean a lot to me to pass. I know I don’t pass all the time. I don’t want people to be reading this to be thinking I think I’m Fishy McFish and like I pass all the time. I know I don’t.
“Trans girls just have this like unspoken bond. I see you. I don’t even know you. I don’t know your story, what your religious beliefs are, your sexuality. I don’t care” – Charlie Craggs
So why do you think trans women are so attached to calling each other ‘sis’?
Charlie Craggs: That’s a good one. I love it. And I’m the queen of calling everyone ‘sis’. I’m like sis, sis, sis. I think it’s so nice because trans girls, we just have this like unspoken bond.
An immediate solidarity...
I see you. I don’t even know you. I don’t know your story, what your religious beliefs are, your sexuality. I don’t care. I don’t know anything about you, but you’re my sister just because you’re my sister. I need you to know that I’m here for you.
Trace Lysette from the show ‘Transparent’, she spoke about the stigma that straight men that want to date us face. In discussion with her friend she said something like ‘the public needs a famous guy to loudly and proudly proclaim his love for a trans woman so we can have that ‘Ellen’ moment. If you were to be the fiancée of this trailblazing man of the future...
Charlie Craggs: (squeals) DAAAAAAADDDYYYYY!!! DAAAAAAAAAAAADDDDDDDYYYYYYY!!!!
What celebrity would you want to put a ring on it?
Charlie Craggs: Honeeeeeeeey! It could be any celebrity because then I would have COIN! COIN FOR THE PUUUSSSSSSSSSYYYYYYY!!! I’m not even fussy baby. Anyone, regardless of whatever. I’m equal opportunities. Things like that don’t matter to me. But let me think…
Well it doesn’t have to be just one. Let’s just discuss the men that you would date.
Charlie Craggs: OHHHHHHH! Can we tag them? HI HARRY STYLES! I love Harry. Oh, and also Harry’s sister follows me on Instagram so I feel like it could happen. I mean, I could DM her. And also he said that gender doesn’t matter to him too much. So now, I’m like OK. I feel Harry could be one of the first. And he’s so popular. It would be huge. Also, he held the trans flag up on stage recently. So there’s definitely a possibility that I could slide into his DMs and he could slide into my PUUUUUUUUUSSSSSSSSSSSSYYYYYYYYYYY!!!!
You dedicated the book to your best mate, Khadija Saye. At the Marie Claire Awards in your acceptance speech you spoke of the need for working-class kids to be supported in their dreams and ambitions. What could Jeremy Corbyn do to impress you if he becomes Prime Minister?
Charlie Craggs: Working-class kids and workng-class people don’t lack talent or skill or ambition. We lack opportunity. That’s the thing. We are just as good as any middle-class person. We’re better often. We have to work double as hard to get to the table to be offered that opportunity. And Khadija is a prime example of that. I mean she was like me, a council estate girl from Ladbroke Grove. She worked REAL HARD. She got offered that opportunity and she flourished. She was taking over! Literally. I’m so glad she got to before [Grenfell] happened. At my university, they run a participation project for working-class kids to come to the uni and stuff. My mentor Jackie McManus who really took me under her wing and said “You need to do this!” And that’s what we need. We need to be given more of a chance. WE NEED THE CHANCE! That’s what it is. That’s the answer.
On Wednesday November 22 at Waterstones Tottenham Court Road join Charlie, writer and Black Lives Matter UK activist Kuchenga, author and Elle columnist Rhynnon Styles, dance sensation DivaD Magnifique, who’ll share their incredible stories of resilience and success - from dealing with 5 o’clock shadow to battling transphobia