Published by Penguin, May 2021 | Memoir, Non-fiction
It’s hard to imagine that Paris Lees, one of the UK’s most influential transgender women, became a rent boy aged 13, suffered regular school yard beatings and spent time in prison for robbery.
Yet the prominent journalist – who blazed a trail as the first openly trans woman presenter on BBC Radio 1 and Channel 4, columnist for British Vogue, and dogged campaigner to change representation of trans people in the media – has laid bare her turbulent adolescence in her debut autofiction novel, What it feels like for a girl.
Lees has adopted a writing style that gives you the sense you’re having a cuppa with the narrator as her story, unfiltered, starts tumbling out, told in “Nottinghamese”, the dialect from Lees’ home town of Hucknall in Nottinghamshire, where “summat” means “something”, “gerra” means “get a” and “mysen” means “myself”.
The swift rhythm of the often funny, sometimes disturbing, always frank tale is also punctuated by the ever-present soundtrack of Lees’ adolescent years. It begins in 2001 – when Lees is 13 – with the title track, “What it feels like for a girl”, by pop icon Madonna, well known for her embrace of the LGBT community. More than 60 short chapters track the protagonist’s next few years, each aptly titled for hits of the day, like You Don’t Know Me, Scream If You Wanna Go Faster and Toxic.
While it is a memoir, Lees has changed the names of her characters, including the protagonist, called “Byron”, a nod to Nottingham’s most famous literary son. Lees’ pride in hailing from the same county as Lord Byron shines throughout the novel, her protagonist even seeking out the magical sanctuary of the English poet's ancestral home Newstead Abbey, to escape the pugnacity of Hucknell, a former mining town, where she says “the people are small-minded an’ the streets are paved wi’ dog shit”.
Byron’s need to break free from the town – and its disdain for anyone who was “different” – infuses the novel. He felt the full force of that distain, having been born a boy but identifying as a girl from a very young age. “I’ve always known, it’s ma earliest memory”, he tells a doctor who he’d been taken to by his father, a burly bouncer who seems in equal measures bewildered and infuriated by his son’s effeminate behaviour. No end of beatings could "toughen up" his son.
Homophobic violence was also dished out to Byron by young local thugs, the beatings exacerbated by a barrage of stinging insults: Bender. Arse-bandit. Shirt lifter.
The more abuse he copped, the more confused and maddened - yet determined - the 13 year old became. If he couldn’t change the way he felt, spoke, walked or lived, then he'd have to find somewhere else to fit in, even if it was on the bottom rungs of society where everyone else seemed to think he belonged.
He soon channels this jumble of emotions into acts of rebellion, embarking on a subversive quest for acceptance. It’s a path that leads him to discover cottaging, prostitution, drugs and the queer party scene, often stumbling into bright morning light after clubbing all night with a newfound bunch of like-minded, loose souls. These outlets earned Byron the freedom he thought he craved, but it also landed him in serious trouble including jail time.
While there is a joy and lightness among many of the tales recounted, including the colourful antics he gets up to with his new crew and the tight friendships they form, other tales are quite harrowing particularly when you consider just how young he was. Some readers may even feel the narration of some of his exploits pushes the balance too far as it may be interpreted as condoning behaviour that’s damaging to children – let alone illegal.
One example was when Byron says how much he “loved it” when he was driven to the woods by one of the many unnamed, "dirty old men" that paid him for sex, where up to 15 men “were all fightin’ to be wi’ me”, “touchin’ me all over” and “one of ‘em got inside me”. Although these types of events ultimately send Byron in a direction of self-loathing and self-medication, claiming he loved it despite knowing it was “bad” sends a worrying signal of acceptance of the behaviour.
Lees’ decision to share her personal story – interweaving her family’s dysfunction and confronting themes of abuse and paedophilia that littered her path towards her own understanding and acceptance of her gender identity – can be viewed as an extension of her public campaigning over the past decade to make a mainstream audience aware of trans issues, to break down transphobia in society and build inclusion for trans people.
It also shows how far we still have to go.
"When I was growing up, you rarely saw trans people in public life and only then as objects of ridicule, pity or disgust,” a recent interview quotes Lees’, who began her writing career with the LGBT press and founded META, a digital magazine for trans people.
"People are starting to get it; it's on the agenda. It's a legitimate cause that people know about. But we've still got a long way to go before we reach equality."
The use of Nottinghamese is brilliant. It's an important memoir in that very few trans stories are told, and therefore I recommend it. But I can't help but worry that some passages (like the one I named above) may have the opposite effect of what the author wants to achieve in terms of bringing less stereotyping and more understanding to trans issues.