Interview with Munroe Bergdorf: ISSUE 3 EXCERPT
Channeling the power of empathy, Munroe Bergdorf talks activism, being an ally and how important it is for future generations of queer youth to have somebody speak up for them.
Interview by Rhona Ezuma
This interview first appeared in THIIIRD’s print Issue III:Journeys, which you can buy here. As quarantine is forcing most of us home 24/7, THIIIRD has teamed up with the UK QTIBIPOC Hardship Fund, which means we are donating 40% of proceeds from our magazines (Issues 1-3) sold through our website to their fund. So read on!
People who speak up and say the things that need to be said are rarely doing it unaware of the hard rod dealt to those who make a stand. They don’t do it because they think the world will necessarily congratulate them, but because they must. Being someone who is unafraid enough to start the conversations that need to be started takes guts, and Munroe Bergdorf certainly has them. She chooses to use her voice not only to make things better for herself and others like her – people who identify as black, trans, queer and/or womxn – but also for those whose plights are very different from hers, but still face ignorance, discrimination and microaggressions within society.
Race, class, gender and ability all affect how we experience the world, and how we are received by it. To a certain extent, the more poor, queer, disabled or coloured you are, the more at a disadvantage you can be in wider society. This is something she wants us to be aware of, in order to make us do better and be better allies.
Rhona Chioma Ezuma: To start off, who is Munroe Bergdorf, how do you describe yourself?
Munroe Bergdorf: I don’t really know! I like to just think of myself as an empathetic person who has a platform and wants to use it to help other people either feel heard or bring about change. I don’t think that I really thought I would take this path, it’s not something I thought would be a career, but I’m glad that it is because I get to travel to a lot of different places and meet amazing people, and work with people that I’ve always wanted to work with. Ultimately, I’m doing what I would have liked to have seen as a kid or teenager, just having somebody out there like me I think is important for the future generations of queer youth.
RCE: Definitely. And obviously activism is key to what you do. What is activism to you?
MB: For me, I’d say activism is empathy and action, it doesn’t need to be something that affects you directly, it can just be something where you just need to feel, and put yourself in other people’s shoes. I think being able to do that is a rarity in this world, I feel we’re really living in an unempathetic time where everybody just seems to be concerned with themselves. And, if you look at every single marginalised group that have been marginalised throughout history, the majority haven’t become liberated without allies and people that aren’t affected by what’s going on socially, so I just like to think that, as much as I campaign for equality with black rights and equality with LGBT rights, I like to think of myself as an ally for people that practise Islam or people that are campaigning for period rights or disability rights – things that don’t affect me. They ultimately affect us all because they all feed into a wider narrative.
RCE: I definitely feel you there. I think being an ally is very much at the centre of what THIIIRD is about. There is a sense of trust that comes with being an ally, and sometimes people from that group don’t want allies to overstep the mark, but then we all need allies. What would you say makes a good ally?
MB: I would say someone that acknowledges that they don’t have all the answers, that they’re still learning and ultimately what they want to do is be of use to a community, rather than speak for a community. I think really it involves passing the mic rather than speaking into the mic yourself, and I think it’s celebration ultimately. It’s celebrating the good and trying to combat the bad whilst also not really wanting to be rewarded. I think allyship needs to be selfless, you need to be prepared to work with the community but not necessarily be praised or celebrated yourself, it’s all about the community. If I was going to be part of a march for combating Islamophobia and I centre myself in that conversation when I don’t have to deal with Islamophobia, then it becomes a problem; I think ultimately standing with a community and not wanting any of the praise yourself is what makes a good ally.
RCE: You’ve mentioned your platform quite a lot, you have quite a strong voice and you also did Genderquake with the likes of Caitlyn Jenner and Germain Greer. How was that?
MB: When I was asked to do it, I went back and forth and back and forth about whether or not I was going to do it, and lots of people were dropping out, lots of people were being asked to do it and saying no. It was just kind of seeming like no one in the community that had a strong voice was going to do it, so I was like, well this isn’t good because if none of us are going to do it then it’s going to end up being weak voices or inexperienced media voices on the panel and that’s going to impact on the community, because people that don’t understand or know trans people are going to be watching this. We need all the strongest voices forward, so I just said, screw it, I’ll do it. I knew that Caitlin was on it, but, again, I felt like it was a British show about being trans in Britain and Caitlin was on there, so I felt it was really important a strong British voice was on there. Regardless of how strong Caitlin is. I’m glad that I did it, I mean it was infuriating because I think a lot of people have been shocked about trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs), they didn’t know that they existed and I’m glad that it showed the struggle for what it is and that people now know what we’re up against. We’re not up against Nazi skinheads that don’t believe trans women are women, that’s not where the transphobia is really coming from, it’s from middle-aged women that look like your neighbour, that you just wouldn’t expect it to come from. I’m glad for that that exposed itself and that they showed themselves up. I’m glad that I did it.
RCE: Also going onto the What Makes A Woman Channel 4 documentary you did. It was super intimate and also quite personal. Why was that important for you to do?
MB: I just wanted to just humanise, not just myself, but the trans experience as well for a lot of people that think it’s just some really sensationalistic ‘other’ thing that a really small percentage of the population go through. And I just wanted to show it as just a journey; we all have our journey, and this was just one person’s journey and everybody’s transition is different. This was something that I just wanted to do for myself, give a little bit of background to who I was as a person. I feel like a lot of people that don’t know me, that weren’t aware of me, or don’t think the same thing as I do, have a certain image of me and I kind of wanted to just show you my personality and show that I’m a real person, that I’m a well-rounded person and an intelligent person and someone who has had a journey to get to where I am, and am still on a journey. So yeah I think it was extremely personal but for all the right reasons.
RCE: On the show, you let them film your actual feminisation surgery. I thought that was really brilliant, but especially because it may kind of open up this conversation around transitioning and gender dysmorphia. I think a lot of people don’t really understand what is entailed in transitioning, very much like how we treated or saw periods.
MB: I mean, transitioning doesn’t need to involve surgery, but for me I think it was more important to speak about gender dysphoria and the impact of gender dysphoria and I was lucky enough to have surgery, but a lot of people can’t afford it because it is very expensive. I just think it was important to speak about gender dysphoria more than the surgery, but ultimately everybody’s transition is different and some people don’t even want surgery so it really is down to who you are as a person. You know some cisgender women have surgery and really it’s no different to that, it’s just feeling comfortable with your own body and for me I’ve always wanted surgery just to help me feel like me. But that’s no different to say a cisgender woman who’s never felt like her because of her body. So I wanted people to also draw those parallels between cisgender women and trans women and show we’re not really that different. You know cisgender women have periods to contend with and transgender women have gender dysphoria to contend with, but we ultimately both deal with sexism and misogyny, so really we need to be focused on that rather than trying to say, oh look we’re different. Of course I’m not saying that I’m a cisgender woman, I was born, but I wasn’t assigned female at birth. So I think people get that confused, especially cisgender women feel that transgender women are trying to say that we’re the same. We’re not the same physically, but what woman is?
RCE: Yeah of course. We’re all women, you know, I’m not the same as my sister, do you know what I mean?
MB: Yeah. But I think that’s amazing that we’re all so different. And we’ve all got something to learn from each other, and it’s such a shame when people say you can’t give birth so you’re not a real woman. But then if a cisgender woman isn’t able to give birth, does that make her any less of a woman? Or like an intersex woman that is born with both genitals, does that make her any less of a woman because of something that she was born with? It’s not as simple as TERFs want to make it seem. And I really feel that if we go down the road that TERFs are going down, we’re going to end up [like] The Handmaid’s Tale, because if you literally say that a woman’s sole purpose is to give birth, or provide for a family or whatnot, then we’re going to wind things into that kind of totalitarian, dystopian reality and it can’t go that way. It’s scary enough having presidents like Trump in power who want that. So, yeah, let’s not do that!
RCE: Yes, and different bodies are treated differently. You are really great at breaking the structures down so people understand. The debacle with L’Oréal campaign must feel so long ago now, but I think a lot of people, myself included, really loved that you stood your ground during it. What the press tried to do was push you into a corner where you’d turn around and say ‘oh no, I didn’t say these things’, or would just be silent. But you attempted to use the shamble to have a real conversation about race and race relations, and you didn’t step down because of that pressure… How?
MB: Because ultimately I didn’t do anything wrong. I just spoke about issues within society, that unless you’re experiencing them you just don’t talk about. We don’t talk about race in this country. We’re beginning to, but I think a lot of white people in this country are under the impression that it’s like an American problem, when really racism changes throughout the world. It’s different in Britain to how it is in America. But then it’s different in South Africa to how it is in Australia, but racism is a very worldwide problem and it’s really down to Europeans and the impact that colonialism and the empire and imperialism had on the rest of the world. I think that we’re so shy of saying where racism comes from through fear, as people of colour, of being attacked how I was in the media. And it’s nothing new, it’s just a woman of colour being attacked and silenced because she dares speak out against a structure that benefits white people. It’s not that I’m saying all white people are nasty, are bad, are intrinsically violent, I was saying that microaggressions and unconscious bias and power and privilege all amass and turn into violence. Unconscious bias and a policeman with a gun turns into violence. People don’t necessarily need to be aware of their racism to be racist, so I wanted people to think about it and I think that required holding my own ground, doubling down and making sure people that felt the same way as me were also heard. And then it opened a dialogue that we could actually speak about something that all people of colour in the UK face.
You can buy a copy of THIIIRD’s Issue III:Journeys by clicking on the image below. We have pledged 40% of proceeds from the sales of our magazines (Issue 1-3) through our website to the UK QTIBIPOC Hardship Fund.
Photography by Vicky Tout
Photography assistant: Bruno Gabriel
Hair: Edward Bossman
MUA: Lauren Reynolds