Over the last few years, award-winning activist Charlie Craggs has been traveling the United Kingdom with Nail Transphobia, a fabulous initiative which sees her transform a pop-up nail salon into a safe space for people to come and ask uncomfortable questions about her experiences as a trans woman. It’s unconventional, but it works: by engaging in personal conversations, she succeeds in humanizing a community so often reduced to statistics and sensationalist headlines.
This refreshing, personable attitude also permeates her recently-released debut book To My Trans Sisters, which she describes as an “encyclopedia of trans excellence”. Spanning more than 300 pages, the in-depth tome collates letters of sisterly advice from almost 100 trailblazing role models; from journalists and activists to politicians and performance artists, these women become the ‘big sisters’ Craggs wishes she knew throughout her own transition.
The letters vary in tone, content and length; some are theoretical, breaking down complex concepts in feminist theory, whereas others offer simple makeup tips and advice on how to navigate the world as a trans woman. The only universal commonality linking these snippets of sisterly guidance is optimism: “The most difficult thing wasn’t going out and putting up with abuse,” writes tech pioneer Kate Stone in her heartwarming contribution. “The greatest challenge was not allowing myself to get angry, and to try to turn my inner bigotry into kindness and understanding towards others.”
Fittingly, the last letter comes courtesy of Craggs herself. Imbued with her disarming warmth and quick sense of humor, she rounds off what is arguably the first large-scale example of a book written by trans women, for trans women. In the wake of the book’s release, we reached out to the role model to discuss the diversity of trans experiences, the importance of visibility and the need for optimism as a survival technique.
When did the idea for the book and the letter format first come about?
Charlie Craig: The idea for the book actually came in my final year of university; I came out, and I didn’t know any other trans people at the time. I really struggled. I wanted to create a book of sisterly advice so that no other girl would have to go through it alone like I did.
Without that big sister figure to guide me through, I ended up absorbing anything trans-related I could online: books, films, Wikipedia articles. I became kind of an expert on trans women. So, when I was offered my book deal three years later, I began reaching out to the women who I had researched and read about to ask if they would write a letter of sisterly advice for the project.
To my surprise, almost 100 said yes! I call it the encyclopedia of trans excellence – it’s the book I wish I had at the start of my transition.
This is arguably one of the first large-scale examples of a book by trans women, for trans women. Why has it taken this long?
CC: I actually think we’ve come extremely far really quickly; prior to 2013 there was very little trans visibility in the media, but now we’re on magazine covers, we’re winning awards and we’re signing book deals. Christine Burns MBE – who is featured in the book – said something interesting.
She called 2014 the ‘Trans Tipping Point’, 2015 the year of trans visibility and 2017 the year that publishers embraced trans literature. You have books from authors like Janet Mock, Jennifer Finney Boylan, Juno Dawson, Rhyannon Styles, CN Lester, Paris Lees, Christine Burns and myself coming out. Our voices are finally being heard; it’s exciting.
You allude to the importance of role models; who were yours?
CC: Nadia Almada (Big Brother UK contestant) was probably the first trans woman I saw. I was about 13 at the time and being badly bullied for my own femininity at school, so I saw a lot of myself in her; she was like me, but not a victim like I was then.
She didn’t take shit from people, and that changed the way I saw myself – I refused to be a victim, I started fighting back, and that prepared me for my transition and the related abuse that would come a decade later. I see a lot of Nadia in the woman I am now. The coolest part is that we’re actually friends now! She messaged me to say she loved Nail Transphobia and I screamed – like her loud, iconic scream when she won Big Brother, but less loud and less iconic. Obviously.
How did you acknowledge the prevalence of problems like transphobia but also maintain an optimistic tone?
CC: I can’t take credit for that – I told all the women they could write whatever, however they wanted. That’s the beauty of the book. The letters were all so different; some were 10 words, others 10 pages, some bullet-point lists and others poems. The content varied too.
Emmy-nominated actress/producer Jen Richards begins with: “I want to cut through all the bullshit, the hand-holding, affirmations and promises that it will get better,” whereas tech pioneer Kate Stone wrote a fabulous letter about killing people – specifically transphobic people – with kindness. I do think the fact that most letters, although they have their sad parts, are optimistic reflects that, as a trans person, you have to be optimistic. If not, you’ll kill yourself.
Why do you think the true diversity of trans womanhood is rarely encapsulated within existing media?
CC: Because it’s cisgender people telling our stories – usually white cisgender people too, and that’s the tea! The big thing up until this point has been positive representation in the media, so more trans people in front of the camera. The next step is to get more trans people behind the camera, too, so that our stories and these characters become more authentic.
Why do you think it’s important that cisgender audiences and allies take the time to read this book, too?
CC: The majority of reviews (4.5 stars average, just saying!) have been from cisgender people saying this book helped them understand our community better. There are parallels and recurring themes in these letters which illustrate the hardships we face as trans women; I think that’s a good way of humanizing us and bringing focus back to what actually matters.
People are constantly debating issues like fucking toilets, but these things don’t really matter; our lives matter, and the sad reality is that the number of trans women murdered is increasing every year. Trans Awareness Week is in mid-November, so go on babes – make yourself aware.
Finally, what definitive piece of advice would you give to any trans woman reading this interview?
My one definitive piece of advice is to buy the book, obviously – that way you get definitive advice from almost 100 incredible women, and not just me.
You can find her latest book here on Amazon.