It’s a bright, crisp January day in Brighton. Arcade machines ping and tinkle and seagulls screech in the white winter sunshine. A young woman stands on the beach, hand on hip, as a fashionably disheveled photographer calls out instructions.
She cuts an ostentatious and unapologetic figure, in fishnets, a pink fur coat and gold ankle boots. Passers-by crane their necks curiously. “Wow, who’s she?!” says someone in a loud whisper.
She’s Juno Dawson. A prolific and ebullient author, she’s conjured herself a spellbinding career in the world of teenage fiction with a still growing collection of dark, funny and daring stories for young people. She’s also recently published a more personal book, The Gender Games, out this month in paperback. It’s primarily a memoir, but also explores the way the world sees gender, and how it relates to the way we experience life.
She’s sparklingly confident without a shred of pretension or insincerity, with a refreshingly outrageous sense of humour. But she also speaks eloquently and passionately on the issues she cares about. Like many people with defiantly progressive views on gender and sexuality, Juno has received a backlash not just for the things she says, but who she is.
“There are three different branches of transphobia,” she says, as we crunch across Brighton’s trademark pebble beach in search of fish and chips. “One is ‘you’re a freak lol’. And that very often tends to come from men. That’s the most basic. Then you’ve got your Daily Mail and The Times readers going ‘oh, I’m concerned. I support your right to be a woman, but I have concerns about my children.’ And then the third branch is radical lofty academics who are all like ‘erm, I think if we override science it puts women in great peril of male privilege.’ The Germaine Greers of the world. Although she has more in common with group one, in that she does just call us gross men in wigs.”
What Juno is speaking about is a struggle that trans people face every day. It’s a constant battle against people who question their very existence. They’re perpetually asked to justify their lives, their bodies and their appearances. Much of the pressure comes from social media. Vitriol pours out on Twitter, not just from faceless trolls, but from prominent public figures like journalists and social commentators. Despite this, Juno is benevolent towards the potential benefits of social media.
“I think social media is still broadly a good thing, despite everything,” she sighs. “That feeling of isolation I had when I was growing up in the suburbs of Bradford…no child feels isolated now, because they have the internet. For young LGBT people, there’s never gonna be that sense of being the only gay in the village anymore, because their village is much bigger. There’ve been some garbage headlines about online trans forums like “Trans Cult Brainwashes Kids”…fuck that. It’s just that they have Instagram. If I were looking at eighteen pictures of Andreja Pejic every day, I’d have transitioned when I was eleven.”
Over the last few months, mainstream national publications like The Sun, The Daily Mail and The Times have launched an aggressive assault against trans people. It’s a sudden, confusing and seemingly unprovoked campaign. I ask her why she thinks this has happened now, in 2018, when so many other aspects of society are more accepting than ever. She looks out at the sea thoughtfully.
“This is something that crosses class, it crosses the political divide,” she says. “For whatever reason, there are just some people out there who will not accept what trans people are saying. A lot of the hysteria we’re seeing is coming from fear. They feel that gender self-recognition will lead to rapists disguising themselves as women to access women-only spaces.”
“The rhetoric you hear is ‘we need a solution that benefits trans people and women.’ See what they’ve done there? There’s no admission that we are women. We are some other kind of group. We’re being told ‘you’re not a biological woman.’ So what am I then, an android? What the fuck are you talking about?! It’s insane.”
We move on to discussing Juno’s always interesting and occasionally headline-grabbing love life, a subject about which she speaks candidly in The Gender Games. I ask what she makes of straight men these days.
“I couldn’t eat a whole one,” she says, popping a chip in her mouth. “I do think straight men are learning. Although, just before Christmas, I discovered that a guy I’d been dating for six weeks already had a cisgender girlfriend living in Wales. And that I was like, his transgender bit on the side. Apparently they had an open relationship. So he knew, and she knew, but I did not know. I was quite upset, and I told my friends and they were like ‘well of course you’re upset, because this is what being a woman is like.’”
Juno believes society needs to take direct responsibility for the way men behave towards women, and how they carry themselves in the world in general. We’ve taught men they can behave how they want at the behest of women, causing an undercurrent of sexism and exploitation in all aspects of society. Not to mention a paucity of consequences for men’s actions. They’ve come to expect everything, including women, to be served to them on a silver platter. And, she says, that needs to change.
“I was dealing with a man who’s been told, in lots of different ways his whole life, that the world will provide him with a partner,” says Juno, shrugging off her fur coat resignedly, and using it to wrap up her shivering chihuaha, Prince, who she plucks off the pavement.
“Society encourages it. In Star Wars, for example, the general vibe was that, if you were a Luke Skywalker, the world would provide you with a girlfriend. And she doesn’t have a story of her own, she doesn’t have any agency of her own, she doesn’t have any wants or needs of her own, beyond appealing to him. And this is what has become broadly known as “Rape Culture”. It’s a culture in which not all men are rapists, but in which rape can thrive.”
The conversation inevitably turns to the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, and as we delve into the interminable layers of abuse and inequalities they’ve uncovered, Juno says the key to the dismantling of sexual assault is understanding and communication.
“The utopia would be if we could get to a place where everyone feels empowered enough to talk about what they want and what they don’t want,” she says. “That’s the dream. We’re at a turning point. The MeToo movement and everything post-Weinstein…it’s a change. I think now, men wrongly perceive that women have turned vindictive. Well, good! Then watch yourselves. If it’s gonna take scaring the shit out of men to get them to be more prescient of what they’re doing, then so be it.”
As Juno leads me through Brighton’s wending cobbled streets, back towards the station, we get to talking about gender in a wider sense, and how it affects society. In her book, Juno personifies “Gender” as a shadowy, Babadook-esque figure. It lurks in corners, stifling our imagination and sometimes preventing us from reaching our full potential, and from being happy.
“We’re so submerged in a gendered culture, that we don’t realize everything that’s done to us,” she says. “People get unsettled when genders are subverted. People think if men start wearing skirts (like they do in Scotland) it’ll be carnage and we’ll all end up as cannibals. It’ll be feral humanity. But there have always been fashions, and there have always been trends, and that’s interesting, we should be free to be playful with those things. I love nothing more than people who are playful with that.”
“The guy I’m seeing at the moment said to me the other day ‘I just want a big sparkly jumper!’ And I thought that was great, but I did want to say to him ‘You have a transgender girlfriend…I’m the sparkly jumper! Surprise bitch!’”
The Gender Games is out now.