Award-winning trans activist Charlie Craggs is a radical and influential voice in the fight for equality. She is the founder of Nail Transphobia, a conversation-focused national campaign that tackles transphobia through education, empowerment and nail art. Raised in West London, Charlie is an advocate for trans visibility and recently published To My Trans Sisters, a powerful book of letters exploring the troubles and triumphs of transitioning and self-acceptance. She was #1 on the Guardians New Radicals List of British Social Innovators and also won a Marie Claire Future Shaper Award. As a new face of a long-standing movement, Charlie has become a big sister to thousands of marginalised women who are ready for change. She’s also a lovely person to hang out with. She has great taste in fashion, role models and policies and her prowess, beauty and sense of humour fills the room. With Nail Transphobia growing from strength to strength and her newly published book now out on the shelves, we met up with Charlie to talk about problematic feminists, becoming an author and what it feels like to belong to an unspoken sisterhood.
Words by Kadish Morris & Photography by Dunja Opalko
Have you always been interested in nail art?
I picked nails as my medium for activism because I recognised that they were a good catalyst for conversations. I don’t even care too much about nails. They just help to make people feel a little bit more comfortable. They also leave with something. A conversation starter about having had their nails done by a trans person or a picture. Don’t get me wrong, I like nails but it means so much more to me. It could be Nail Racism, Nail Sexism, Nail Islamophobia. It’s about the conversation rather than the nails.
Do you feel that conversations about transphobia are better had one-on-one?
I started out doing the one-on-one thing because I was having these conversations in my own life when I came out as trans and realised how powerful conversations can be. It’s about taking people away from influences that may make them transphobic like family or friends or religion or the media and showing them that you’re just like them and you have more in common than you have differences. But having said that, the media enables me to amplify that message and have that conversation with thousands of people. I think there’s power in that, but I feel like there’s more power when you’re there in person. Especially with Nail Transphobia. I’m holding your hand. You can’t not feel my humanity when I’m holding hands with you. There’s more chance of you seeing that I’m human when I’m here in the flesh doing your nails. If you still go away not liking me and not liking trans people. You’re fucked up. I’m lovely!
The eye contact, the physical touch – that human experience is so necessary. Without it, it’s easy for people to remove themselves from their behaviour…
If you’ve grown up around people from different cultures and backgrounds – you’re not scared of them because you realise there’s nothing to be scared of. Prejudice comes from a place of fear and misunderstanding. It’s not logical. It’s a very inhuman thing to do. You’re treating them like an alien. As though they’re not human. Even with the migrant crisis. People forget that they are fucking people!
Do you feel brave doing this kind of work considering that you don’t know who you’re going to encounter?
I’m not claiming to convert transphobes. It’s usually people that are halfway there. They might not quite get it. They’ll be sat there misgendering me but at the same time, at least they are open to talking to me. They have an open mind and that’s all I ask for and that they don’t come to call me a tranny because then there’s no point in any of it. If you come here and you’re not willing to change your mind then it’s a waste of my time and a waste of my nail varnish. So get the fuck out of my salon!
“You can’t not feel my humanity when I’m holding hands with you. There’s more chance of you seeing that I’m human when I’m here in the flesh doing your nails.”
Do you ever come away with new understanding?
It’s hard not to. What I’ve learnt is that everyone has a story. People open up to me too. It’s a mutual conversion. I don’t just speak at people. I let them initiate the conversation if anything. There are some people who I wouldn’t have thought would be on my side. It’s easy to think the whole world hates you when you’re trans because a lot of people do. I had someone sit down with me and I felt like she was being a bit off with me. It was because she had a trans child. That’s why she came to get her nails done. I just would never have known that and I would have thought that she was a rude basic lady [Laughs]. She asked me lots of questions. People just want to understand.
Do you think the next generation will be better at creating a more inclusive environment now that there is more conversations happening around gender?
Well, the media is worst than ever. Trans murders are going up every year so it’s getting worse in a lot of ways. It’s not an easy time. I think the younger generation are given this credit for being progressive when actually, they’re not. When I’m bashed in the street, it’s by young guys. So I’m not going to give them this big pat on the back for being progressive millennials! But at the same time, there is a lot more that they do understand. When I joined dating apps and began speaking to younger guys. They know what it means to be transgender whereas older people will still say tranny or shemale.
“We need to shift the conversation and talk about different things. The fact that the murder rates are going up rather than pointless things like whether someone has had surgery.”
I guess while there is more awareness of terminology and such things, whenever a group of people gain some kind of visibility, there is always a backlash…
Yes. I’ve said that for a while. That I think that’s why the murders are going up because people are so triggered by this idea that transgender people are taking over. They’re scared by it and brainwashed by the media. We need to shift the conversation and talk about different things. The fact that the murder rates are going up rather than pointless things like whether someone has had surgery. Let’s centre the conversation around why trans women of colour have a ⅛ chance of being murdered. Why trans women in general are predicted to live until 35. Let’s talk about things like that. Let’s not talk about names before transition or if you can see an old picture.
The media is so obsessed with trans bodies pre-transition!
The media have bred a culture that have made people think it’s OK to ask trans people certain questions. When they talk about us, they show old pictures and mention if we’ve had surgery so people think it’s OK to ask these things too. No-one asks to see a picture of someone when they were really depressed and wanted to kill themselves or were uncomfortable with their weight. You don’t ask anyone else when you first meet them if they’ve had surgery on their genitals so treat me like you would treat anyone else because transphobia stems from you treating us like we’re not the same. These are the same people that would touch a black person hair. They don’t understand that it’s wrong and they’ll say ‘This is PC gone mad’ or “Social justice warriors”. So you don’t like justice? Why is it such a bad thing!
In terms of getting your book To My Trans Sisters together, did you know from the offset who you wanted to include?
Yeah, I had a good idea. I came across hundreds of women I hadn’t heard of, but the majority of women I reached out to are people I really clung onto during my transition. I watched every trans video on Youtube and every film and read every book and every wikipedia page. So when the book came, I just wanted to put all of these amazing women together into one place for the next generation of girls. I reached out to all of them and loads of new ones. Close to 2,000 and anyone who replied is in the book. I tried my best for it to be a diverse representation and not just one kind of trans woman. I tried to get a sister for everyone. I feel like I’ve done a fairly good job, but there’s definitely going to be a second book.
How does it feel to be a published author?
It feels good and I’m really proud. When I think back to my younger self. A council estate queer kid who was bullied for being poor but also, bullied for being gay and trans or whatever – it makes me really proud to have overcome that. I did really well for myself. It makes me really proud to be a loser who did good [Laughs]. But it doesn’t feel real. I haven’t really celebrated it as I’ve had a shit year. I don’t know if I ever will but I’m really proud that I’ve done it. It’s only been out a month but I’ve gotten really nice messages from girls who say it’s helped them so much. So I’m glad. That means a lot to me. It’s what I would have needed so I know it’s good.
The book does such great job at showing that no two trans experiences are the same. There are different struggles and different successes for each girl. And the fact that these stories are now archived in book form is really important too…
I’m really proud of that. It’s a good way of preserving the legacy of our sisterhood because it’s not very well documented. I thought I was the queen of everything trans, but there was a lot of women I didn’t know about. I feel so lucky that I know about them now and that the next generation of girls will know them too. There’s a girl in the book called Aleshia Brevard and she was the first trans women on prime time TV. No-one knew she was trans and I didn’t know about her before I did the book. She passed away as I was publishing the book but I got her letter and I feel so blessed that I got to publish it because if I didn’t know about her and I’m very clued up on this stuff, then other girls won’t know about her either. She’s not very well documented online so I feel happy that I was able to preserve her legacy. It’s so important to know our history and to pass it on to the next generation. Otherwise it will be wiped out and forgotten.
I think it’s so important for trans women specifically because we’re just punchlines and punching bags. It’s important to see that we’re incredible and that we’ve changed the world. It’s not a fad. There are trans women from the ancient Egyptian times! There’s one woman who is the highest earning CEO in America and she’s a trans woman but no-one knows that. So a trans girl reading this book will think ‘Oh look, I don’t have to be a Jerry Springer freak show. I can be the highest paid female CEO”.
Do you feel included in feminism?
Right now, it’s a really bad time in feminism for trans women. There are TERF’s – Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists. There is a lobby of them and I’m really lucky that I don’t get it as much, but all of my trans friends in the media are constantly being attacked by them and goaded. It’s so bad. So many of the important feminists have denounced trans women. Germaine Greer and people like her who have really big platforms have come out and said that they don’t accept trans women. I don’t feel apart of feminism but I am a feminist. Even pre-transition, I’ve always been feminist. I don’t really feel sad because you know what, we’re not the fucking enemy.
“It’s so important to know our history and to pass it on to the next generation. Otherwise it will be wiped out and forgotten.”
All women have different experiences and to say that some experiences are below others or should exist outside of womanhood is so dangerous…
The hilarious thing is that if one experience is going to be above another, it should be trans women. It should be black women surely. It’s more of a struggle for us vs white middle class educated women. You think that you’re the pinnacle of feminist struggle? Get the fuck out of here.
So true! Shouldn’t those suffering the most have the loudest voices in any movement…
I feel like I’m really lucky. I’m in an echo chamber. I’m a young Londoner and a millennial and everyone in my circle is an intersectional feminist. I feel accepted in my reality but when you look at the bigger picture. I’m probably delusional but it’s the least of my worries what some rich white woman thinks. I grew up on a council estate in Ladbroke Grove. I’m not scared of you.
Do you think their views will change now that universities and other institutions are refusing to platform them?
I feel like people are proud to be those things. It’s a conscious decision. People in the street who call me a tranny. You’re being actively transphobic. You know what you’re doing. It’s not a mistake. People with platforms need to realise that you have blood on your hands because the things you are saying has an affect. There was a interview on The Breakfast Club where a comedian said if he found out a woman he had slept with was trans, he’d kill her. Do you not think that is going to have an affect on the men who listen to The Breakfast Club?
And they had Janet Mock on the show just days before!
They are shady fuckers! It makes me so angry. I would have been so upset if I was Janet. It’s happened to me before where someone you think you’re cool with throws you under the bus or laughs at you.
What do you do to make yourself feel confident?
I just cling onto role models. I use them as my source of strength. People like Laverne Cox and Janet Mock. But even before I had them. People like Nadia on Big Brother. Nadia was really important for me. I watched her on TV when I was 13 and knew deep down that I was a trans girl. I was being bullied at school for being LGBT and Nadia was getting stick in the house for being trans but she always stood up for herself. She wasn’t a victim and that really reshaped how I saw myself. I might be victimised but I’m not a victim and I’m not going to take it lying down. It really transformed how I went out into the world. Before, I would be timid and shy but then I was a bad bitch! I learnt that from Nadia. There’s so much of her in me now. [Laughs] The only way I can deal with all the stuff that happens to me is knowing that I’m the shit and if you wanna go, let’s go because I’m not going to be a victim.
Did you always imagine that you would become an activist?
I didn’t transition to become a voice or an activist but I’m glad that I am. I also think I didn’t have much choice. A lot of marginalised people don’t have a choice but to become an activist. You just face so much shit anyway. But also the microaggressions. You’re always having to challenge people and you don’t have a choice but to teach them and call them out. Once you’ve gone through it, you can’t shut your eyes to it. Say I reach a place where I can pass 100% and no-one knows that I am trans and I can go out into the world and be accepted, I don’t think I’d ever be able to shut myself off from the issues because I know what my sisters are going through.
“Once I transitioned, I had this automatic sense of belonging. Maybe it’s just a woman thing period, but I had a bond straight away. An unspoken sisterhood. ”
Finance has been one of your biggest obstacles. What would you do with £100,000?
Bitch I’d pay for all of my surgery! [Laughs] I’ve been doing this for 4 years now. I’ve focused the whole campaign on cis people and allies and educating them. But I think I want to start doing more for trans people now. I’d love to become a charity one day and do tangible things. I know I’m helping people to be on our side so there is good coming from what I do now, but I want to help trans people in a more direct way. That’s where I see myself going. Turning it into an organisation. Stepping it up a bit because I’ve been doing this for 4 years now.
How can people support you?
Anyone who has power, whether that’s financial or people who have contacts, lend a hand if you can. As much as I slag the media off, it has given me a lot and a voice and the chance to amplify my message. It’s given me a platform and made me a respected figure to use as leverage to do good such as speaking on the news or speaking in parliament. I think the media can be really important. So whether it’s sharing someones content on social media, just help to raise their voice, however you can.
Who has helped you along the way?
There’s definitely a sense of sisterhood in my community. That’s why I did the book. I’ve never before felt anything like being apart of the trans sisterhood. I never felt like I was apart of anything pre-transition. I always felt very alone. But once I transitioned, I had this automatic sense of belonging. Maybe it’s just a woman thing period, but I had a bond straight away. An unspoken sisterhood. We really do support each other. We all lift each other up. It’s really special.