Writer Juno Roche talks about her new book Queer Sex, and why our conceptions of sex and gender must evolve
In the opening pages of Queer Sex, author Juno Roche gives us a detailed account of her feelings towards her vagina. After years of living without one, she thought that acquiring one as part of her transition might finally bring her inner peace, and get her laid in the way that she’d often dreamed about. To the contrary, the vagina was a bit of a let down – she didn’t feel that it made her complete, and also she couldn’t seem to find anyone suitable to have sex with. And so Juno decided to go on a journey, interviewing trans and nonbinary people about their bodies, intimacy and sex, in order to learn – on a more metaphysical level – what it was that she’d really been searching for.
It’s rare to see the inner life of a trans woman in her fifties, let alone as honest an account as that in Queer Sex, which offers an unflinching glimpse at Juno’s insecurities and takes on difficult questions around sex and gender in her conversations with interviewees. In terms of her openness, Juno is bit like Britain’s answer to Kate Bornstein, the American transgender author, gender theorist, and performer who wrote A Queer and Pleasant Danger. Like Kate, Juno has lived through a lot, specifically: stints as a sex worker, a school teacher, and a journalist, as well as a serious drug addiction and a HIV diagnosis. We can all learn from her wisdom and her story.
Here, we talked to her about what led to Queer Sex, and how it offers a new dimension to literature about trans identity.
To begin with, how long did the book take and who’s in it?
Juno Roche: It took me just under a year. Some people I chose, some found me. I really wanted to talk to (non-binary activists and YouTubers) Fox and Owl as they were like your archetypal young, romantic couple in love. Michelle is a brilliant trans woman who started CliniQ (a Soho sexual health drop in centre for trans people); I picked her because I really wanted there to be a breadth of age and experience. KUCHENGA (an amazing writer) I was introduced to and thought, ‘God I really want to interview her, she’s so present’. We have a similar history, so we talked a lot about sex work and drugs. That was really cathartic. I decided on my list before I started, particularly making sure trans men were present and that I was ending with an all non-binary group.
The book is not much like the other trans memoirs or polemics coming out right now, in that it’s a series of interviews framed within a personal journey… how do you see Queer Sex as different?
Juno Roche: I feel like we’re stuck at the moment with the ‘you’re not real, you are real’ debate (about whether trans men and women are ‘real’ men and women) and it’s boring. I don’t want to engage with people who say my vagina isn’t real because of course it isn’t ‘real’! I don’t have to be like, ‘No I’m just like you!’ because women aren’t one thing, they’re a whole multiplicity of things. My vagina needs to be seen as its own space because then I can proudly be trans. I suppose that’s the point of Queer Sex: I wanted to create some space where trans people would talk about their own bodies in relation to their own bodies, or maybe in relation to their trans partner or non-binary partner, conversations that were really exciting because they weren’t about being constantly compared to the fixed binary but allowing us to exist on our own terms.
“It’s not just about trans people, it’s about everyone. The feminist and the humanist in me thinks we can do better, and I think trans people have the facility to really change society for the better by beginning to disrupt gender stereotypes” – Juno Roche
A lot of trans people have been trying to actively move conversations away from talking about surgeries and what genitals they have; they dont really want to be viewed as the sum of their parts. But you have been really open and direct in talking about that… why?
Juno Roche: Because I think, historically, the conversations around our genitals have been framed by other people, and they’ve also been framed by a medicalised, pathologized acceptance that dysphoria resides within us. What I wanted to do was say that dysphoria resides outside of us and so we can talk about our genitals; we should be able to talk about them and explore them. In a health sense, I want to be able to talk about my vagina. I don’t know how fragile or strong it is because no one will talk to me about it, about how it might work or how it might age. I kind of feel like it’s really important for us to be able to have conversations about our genitals and about sex and about how our genitals will match with each other. What is it going to be like when we have certain types of sex? What does it mean to date when you have different genitals than people expect you to have?
I wanted to pick up on that point about dysphoria being an outside problem – can we compare this to ableism and the social disability model?
Juno Roche: Absolutely. When I was at primary school, all the boys called me ‘Pansy’ and I thought it was a fantastic name. Up until a certain age everyone called me Pansy and I did all the stuff I wanted to do… I never experienced dysphoria inside of me. Sometimes I didn’t really like having male genitals but there was no huge dysphoria around that. It was society that said, ‘no you can’t have a penis and be a woman’. It was others’ dysphoria in viewing me. It wasn’t my dysphoria. As you grow up you encounter more and more places where gender binaries are tied down; in the school curriculum, in the playground, on television, basically anywhere you look. So dysphoria isn’t held by us, it’s given to us when we express our truest sense of self.
This reminds me of something Owl says in the book: “A week before I had my surgery, I had this revelation: Why do I even need to go through with this? I did feel that people saw it as the final step in authenticating me. I don’t regret it at all but I do feel that society expects us to do it”. Is that something you have also experienced?
Juno Roche: I completely identified with it because for me it was always the case. When I told people I was trans they had in their minds a certain number of steps that I would have to go through to even suitably occupy a place that they understood as being female. That I have to get rid of all hair. I don’t: I’m a woman and I have hair – world, live with it! Or that if I had bigger breasts people would really know I’m a woman. I don’t want bigger breasts! I want to be Kate Moss! There was this huge pressure, specifically for me, because I’m of a generation where you had to have surgery because if you didn’t, then you weren’t even on the pathway to becoming a woman. When Owl said that stuff I thought: ‘How many people have even seen my vagina? For all people know I could still have a dick!’ No child under 18 in the UK can have surgery, which means that all of those young trans people still have the genitals they were born with. I want them to feel OK about that and make a decision about surgery based on empowerment, not based on society saying you should do it.
“I came to see getting my neo-vagina, my upcycled dick and balls, as the queerest thing that ever happened to me because they represent my courage and tenacity to encounter my authenticity and to make changes” – Juno Roche
It’s funny, transphobes like to suggest that all trans people are trying to indoctrinate children to have surgery before they’re 18, and you’re literally saying the opposite, you’re asking how we can create more space for young people not to feel too pressured. But as a binary trans woman, do you think non-binary is a space where we can take the pressure off?
Juno Roche: I suppose I feel less and less binary and more and more queer. I describe myself now as a ‘queer femme’. I’ve never really done labels at all, they do my head in, but it’s become important for me to occupy a space that isn’t ‘binary woman’ because I feel that label diminishes my transness. We hear this narrative of ‘she had facial feminisation surgery and the work flooded in’ or ‘she felt complete’ – I think that can be dangerous, and I think it’s a limiting place for us to be. Really, if you go onto a feminisation surgeon’s website, what they create is a Disney face like Elsa from Frozen. And that’s fantastic, it’s fine, it’s an accepted beauty narrative. But the surgery is very expensive, and not everyone can afford it. And if we’re fighting for equality we need it to be for as many people as possible. I kind of like having a strong jaw, which means people say to me, ‘Aren’t you going to do anything about that?’ It’s like we’ll only be accepted as long as we follow very strict conventions of femininity and masculinity. It’s the same for trans men.
I think we have all been corralled through a very small eye of a binary needle into a femininity and masculinity that’s shaped completely in terms of cis society’s gaze. I’d like to get to a space where someone can define themselves as a woman, have a penis and have facial feminisation surgery if they wanted to. I don’t want to move to a space where everyone is non-binary, but I do want to move to a space where we’re all cut free from gender expectations so that we can not feel bad about ourselves. I read something else the other day that said there are record figures of young girls who are having vaginaplasties – cis girls, not trans girls – because their labia isn’t symmetrical and they feel demonised because boys at school are watching porn with shaved vaginas that are a certain shape. So it’s not just about trans people, it’s about everyone. The feminist and the humanist in me thinks we can do better, and I think trans people have the facility to really change society for the better by beginning to disrupt gender stereotypes and expectations.
“It’s like I went on this beautiful relationship with myself through writing it” – Juno Roche
I wanted to ask you about this phrase ‘the cotton ceiling’ that’s being used a lot to describe the idea of prejudice versus preference in terms of individuals’ attraction to trans people. Particularly lesbians saying they support trans rights but that they wouldn’t sleep with a trans woman. Does this come up in the book? What do you think?
Juno Roche: I think, to a certain extent, people have to be allowed to have autonomy when it comes to their sexual preferences. It’s a bodily thing – you can’t go to bed with everyone and get turned on. It physically doesn’t happen. I have friends I adore and love to bits and think are beautiful… but I don’t want to be in bed with them. Is everyone entitled to sex? No, frankly, but I think everyone is entitled to intimacy and closeness and being touched physically. When people do research and surveys into people living with HIV – especially women, because women are more isolated in relation to HIV – they find one of the most isolating things is a lack of touch. So I think that we, as a race of people, should work harder to ensuring that everyone experiences intimacy.
To go back to your question though, someone rejecting a person just on their identity is incredibly painful, it happened to me a lot before writing the book; I talk in the book about a man I met on Tinder who saw me, talked to me and fancied me (as I did him) but then as soon as I told him I was trans he immediately walked away. It felt brutal that there was nothing I could do but it made me realise: why was I chasing after people who were likely to turn my transness down? It made me want to open my mind and think about my community.
What I wanted to do in the book was see how there’s an emerging culture building up around trans people having relationships with other trans people. On one level it’s like, if I can’t find other trans people attractive then there’s an inbuilt transphobia in me, but I was also interested in how, sleeping with people that are trans, I can bypass a whole load of conversations for example, I can talk about my neo vagina honestly, about its limitations and not have to constantly worry about questions about scars or how different it might look. I could stop being compared to an apparent ‘real thing’.
You were very honest about the misconceptions you had around how your vagina and how it might change sex for you. What did you come out realising at the end of the book?
Juno Roche: I would say that I was naive. I did think I would get a vagina and it would answer everything. Because that’s how binary I was in my thinking. But when you’re trans you spend so many years being like ‘this is right, that isn’t right, but that over there will be’ and that ‘over there’ becomes this idealised space: somehow I’m gonna get this perfect pussy and it’s gonna solve everything. And it’s not always the case. So I found writing the book very revealing. I came to see getting my neo-vagina, my upcycled dick and balls, as the queerest thing that ever happened to me because they represent my courage and tenacity to encounter my authenticity and to make changes.
It feels disruptive to change what we are given on a fundamental level. My scars also became important to me, they became a sexy part of me that I could accept. And people I interviewed would say things to me about their sexaul explorations, how they wanked for example, and I’d go, ‘fuck, I’m gonna literally try that, I’m gonna go home and do it’. It’s like I went on this beautiful relationship with myself through writing it, and so in the end it was just as much about my journey as it was about other people’s.