“I don’t expect you to come and fight with me when I’m getting beaten up, but be in my corner,” says Charlie Craggs, a 23-year-old trans activist.
I meet Charlie at an event for feminist fashion label Birdsong. We bond over our shared name and have a chat while she sticks press-ons onto my shabby fingertips. I’ve never met anyone quite like her, fascinatingly blunt – yet one of the most personable interviewees I’ve had the pleasure of chatting to. We speak at 100 miles per hour, sharing stories and revelling in shared interests.
“I’m not very good with press-ons, I’m good with paint,” she tells me, flicking back a sheath of black hair which is later revealed to be a wig. The reason why she’s doing my nails is part of her self-funded campaign, Nail Transphobia, which has been all over the alternative press in the past month. She has done pop-ups at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London Pride, the Royal Academy of Art, and, of course, for Birdsong.
“I’ve actually been doing this since last August. I go round the country doing events and teaching people to be trans allies. I do peoples’ nails, they take a sassy nail-fie [nail selfie], and then upload it to social media with the hashtag #nailtransphobia. But the actual process is just as important. Just talking about Beyoncé with a stranger who might have some misconceptions about trans people from the media does genuinely change what people think.”
Charlie explains that the vast majority of the people she meets have never met an openly trans person before. There is no current data on the number of transgender people in the UK, but a 2009 study by transgender charity GIRES, shows they could only identify 300,000 – 500,000 trans people, which works out as a tiny percentage of the population. Before meeting Charlie, I couldn’t recall spending any time with an openly trans person.
“For me, it’s not so much about shoving an agenda down anyone’s throat. It’s saying ‘this is me’. It’s humanising the issue and showing that we’re nice people, breaking down any misconceptions and answering questions,” Charlie adds.
Charlie grew up in Shepherds Bush where she still lives with her mum, and is a graduate from the London College of Fashion’s (LCF) Creative Direction course. She’s currently working as the editor of LCF’s Pigeons & Peacocks magazine.
Charlie was telling her mum from age three that she wanted to be a girl.
“I get a lot of shit in the streets. I’m a working-class girl, I have to go back to my council estate every day,” she informs me. She has recently started taking hormones which have kick-started the physical changes.
“Hormones are amazing,” she says. “I started them two months ago but I was on hormone blockers, which is the stage before when you’re transitioning, for maybe about nine or ten months. They’re only just starting to take effect now and so my boobs are growing, which is really exciting.”
She’s also getting laser treatment to remove unwanted hair from her body, which means spending three hours every six weeks at the clinic.
“The struggle is real,” she laughs. “I’ve had electrolysis though, so I think I’m a bit desensitised. Beard hair especially is tight to the skin. It’s so painful. I cried so much.”
After having divulged this information, and clearly a better conversationalist than I am, she diverts our nattering, saying self-effacingly that she’s been talking about herself for too long. We chat about my childhood now, of growing up in Edinburgh as a minority, albeit not a sexual one, and the horror story of the so-called “transracial” woman, Rachel Dolezal, whom she despises.
When we finally return to her experiences of growing up in London, she ends up telling me a horrific story of being assaulted by strangers on the bus. Her offhand manner when describing it seems to belie the seriousness of the story and, despite the fact that she speaks with such confidence and seems so self-assured, Charlie reveals that she has struggled with mental health problems. She wears a wig because she lost some of her hair after suffering from depression.
“I’m all about wig life,” she says without skipping a beat, “You can take them off at night, when you’re in a bar, when you’re getting into a fight.”
In November of last year, stats from LGBT+ charity, Pace, found that nearly half of young transgender people (48%) have attempted suicide.
Our conversation is drawing to a close, my manicure is done, and I really do feel like I have gained an understanding of transgender issues from a perspective so often missing in mainstream media. But, having learnt so much, I still feel like I need to understand more to consider myself a trans ally, so I ask Charlie to tell me what else I can do to lend support.
“For me, if someone’s asking that question they’re already there,” she says. “It’s so important for allies to be conscious and aware. To ask individual trans people for their opinions. I don’t want to speak for others. I say this, but other people will say different things.
“I do Nail Transphobia in the hope that maybe one day next time I’m on the bus getting harassed or sexually assaulted, someone will step up. That’s kind of what it is. Or even if someone on Facebook is slagging off Caitlyn Jenner, for someone to speak up and say ‘oh that’s kind of rude’.”
We give each other a hug as I depart for work – and I have to shed my press-on nails almost as soon as I leave the event. But while her nails are disposable, the lesson she gave me during my manicure is not.
I’m definitely in your corner, Charlie Craggs.