Juliet Jacques on Hope and Transformation

What is hope to you?

Fleeting! Seriously though – it’s a motivating force when a better world looks like it might be in reach, and a sustaining one in times like now, when things seem quite desperate and it’s hard to know exactly what to hope for, let alone what might turn such hopes into social transformation.

What does hope do to people?

Proverbially, it kills us. In some cases, it can completely distort our view of things, particularly relations between people, be those individual or collective. But it also nourishes and sustains us: it inspires us to philosophise, get involved in political movements, bring about reforms or revolutions, to write and make art, fall in love, start families and societies.

Why should everyone hope for transgender equality?

On a basic level, a world in which trans people are treated with basic dignity, let alone given equal rights against discrimination and better healthcare, would be a kinder, more caring one. Trans liberation would open up more possibilities for gender expression for everyone. To dig deeper, it would encourage greater respect for bodily autonomy, with repercussions for rights to abortion and anti-racism movements. And in the UK at least, there will be no trans liberation without serious media reform – the state of our corporate media is the biggest problem with our politics, so that would be valuable for everyone.

Can hope be deceiving, in political activism?

Absolutely! To give a personal example, I’d always been incredibly downbeat about British politics, thinking the UK an irredeemably reactionary nation. I joined Labour when Jeremy Corbyn became leader in 2015, but expected him to soon be forced to resign, deposed, or even killed, given what his MP’s, let alone people from the military, were saying. But we had a snap election in 2017 where Labour did surprisingly well on a relatively left-leaning manifesto, and my friends and I thought victory was probable, even inevitable, in the next one, and we let ourselves dream of and plan for a socialist Britain. This did not happen. We didn’t quite register how successful the attempts to divide the party over Brexit had been until it was too late, nor how another two years of media attacks on the Labour left and its leaders had landed with the public. I had my anxieties about the 2019 election and was crushed by the heavy defeat that followed. But cynicism can be equally deceptive – as we regrouped, it was important to remember that more than ten million people had voted for that transformative manifesto in 2019, and that the social conditions that led so many younger people in particular to support that project hadn’t gone away.

I have refined my aims to fighting for better trans representation in media and literature.

What is your greatest hope? Is it manifested in your writing?

I felt a huge sense of futility and existential despair as a teenager, and came out of it wanting to create something that would make the world a better place than when I came into it. Vague, I know, and a bit later, as a student, I read writers who put their work at the service of revolution – Marx and Engels, Lenin, and other theorists, but also the German Expressionist playwrights, Soviet poets such as Vladimir Mayakovsky, and the French Surrealist writers. This made me want to change the world through writing, but a friend – also a writer – said that holding myself to this was a fast track to insanity.

What has kept you sane?

I have refined my aims to fighting for better trans representation in media Juliet Jacques on Hope and Transformation and literature, and creating things that would hopefully make someone like the teenaged me feel less alone. Narrowing my horizons whilst remaining ambitious has helped me to avoid one of the greatest risks for a writer – being crushed by disappointment – and to cope with constantly having to push against people whose ideas of “a better world” come into conflict with mine.

In July 2012, you underwent sex reassignment surgery - a process you chronicled with unflinching honesty in a national newspaper in England, and later compiled in “Trans: A Memoir”. Looking back on your column: how did it help you understand what you were going through?

It was a highly structured way of marshalling my thoughts about specific aspects of transition, whether they be the medical, procedural or social sides of it. The column had open comments – a community grew around it, including older people who reflected on their transitions and gave advice to me and others. Transitioning was often physically and psychologically punishing: the series offered a wonderful platform to turn some of those painful aspects into something positive, whilst still telling people who were afraid that the process was difficult, but negotiable.

What events in history inspire hope in you?

This is a difficult question to answer from the radical left, as most revolutions have either ended in bloody defeat or even bloodier victory – like many, I find lots of beauty and inspiration in the Paris Commune of 1871, but its defeat was impossibly brutal. So it tends to be trade union or activist victories, or just uprisings like the trans one at Compton’s in San Francisco in 1966 or the Stonewall riots three years later, or the wave of insurrections in May ‘68. Demonstrations of solidarity between unions and more identity-based groups, such as Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners during the 1984-85 strike, inspire me, as does the huge protest against Section 28, the British law banning the “promotion” of homosexuality in schools in 1988. Cultural movements like Rock Against Racism, and displays of solidarity like the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War – which, again, feel like a hoary Old Left cliché by now, but are well worth remembering.

What constitutes an inclusive language of hope?

I think aiming for universalism is fine, as long as the working class and people in the Global South, and minorities of sex, race and gender are included in the art and activism that will struggle to realise our hopes. It’s important to be adaptable, more than anything – to avoid the sclerotic nature of long-standing left-wing institutions, as well as the traps of permanent constitutions that make it difficult to change with the times.

Under what circumstances can we use the word “we” when we speak of hope?

Under many circumstances, I think, and certainly when involved with any collective political project. I think people can, and should, speak of “I” and “we” simultaneously – movements are made up of individuals with overlapping, if not always identical goals, and language can reflect that. If people want to opt out of the “we” that “we” use – well then, perhaps they’re not on our side.

Can you complete this sentence: for me, this is personal because –

I can’t live without hope!

JULIET JACQUES is a writer, filmmaker and journalist whose practice explores the themes of literature, film, art, music, politics, gender, sexuality and football. She is best known for her work on the transgender experience, published as a series of columns in The Guardian in 2011 and 2012 and later as the book TRANS: A MEMOIR. She has also hosted a radio program on art and taught a course on queer fiction.

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