Sisterhood: Munroe Bergdorf
She is the voice that launched a thousand thinkpieces. In a world of Trumps and Theresas and the kind of polite ineffectual centrism that lets Nazism and white supremacy thrive unchallenged, Munroe Bergdorf is gunpowder, treason, and plot. A model – part it-girl, part agitator – she found herself at the centre of a cause-celebré a year ago, when her unapologetically strident polemic about the passive complicity of all white people in white supremacy was leaked to right-wing media by someone with a personal vendetta. It was an attempt to weaponise the fury of the press and get her – L’Oreal’s first trans model – fired.
Bergdorf’s firing was part of a long media tradition of painting antiracism activists, and particularly black women, as irrational anti-white furies. But where the threat of scrutiny, anonymous threats and tirades of abuse would silence, Bergdorf got louder. Seizing control of her narrative and firmly turning the gaze back on white Britain, she called out their prejudices, their complicity and their refusal to acknowledge the elephant in the room — that racism was alive and well in today’s Britain, and they were simply not doing enough to end it. If the Daily Mail wanted her rabid destruction and silent acquiescence, Bergdorf proved that she was nothing if not on the rise.
Since the scandal, she’s walked runways for the gender-queer fashion collective Art School, strutted for Gypsy Sport in New York, and produced and starred in her own Channel 4 documentary What Makes a Woman examining her personal journey, as well as what life is like for trans people in the UK today. Showing absolutely no signs of slowing down, her fierce politics, unapologetic blackness and her spirituality remain woven into everything she does. Be it calmly facing down unrepentant transphobes on live television, or deconstructing white supremacy and misogynoir to her 80k-strong Instagram audience, Munroe Bergdorf is a renaissance woman for a brave new world.
© Tom & Denelle Ellis
Jacket: Cheap Monday (Exclusively available at Bread&&Butter by Zalando)
Jumpsuit: Pepe Jeans (Exclusively available at Bread&&Butter by Zalando)
Sneakers: Superga 2730
Nightlife has always borne a particular primacy and importance to queer people and to queer people of colour especially, but the London queer nightlife scene often struggles to give space to the most marginalised of our community. How did you find a space that not just tolerated but embraced your blackness and your womanhood?
When I first started transitioning I was working in the gay scene in Soho. I started off feeling really at home, like I had found my people, but the more I started to embrace who I was, the more that started to shift. I wasn’t very self aware of my intersections. My dad’s mum came from the Windrush generation, and a lot of that legacy was about assimilation and erasing difference. It was about becoming part of the Empire, and not necessarily practising ancestral culture. I grew up in a predominantly white area, so by the time I got to London, I wasn’t really aware of my blackness.
As I began to transition, I started embracing that more and started appreciating it and not looking at it as something that I should hide, so I just started becoming a lot more unapologetic and talking through my identity with my dad. I joined a femme collective called Pxssy Palace, alongside Nadine Artois, Skye Cooper Barr and Kesang Ball. That was the reaction to the resistance I experienced when I started embracing my blackness and my transness. It was a reaction to not being able to be in these spaces without encountering misogyny or racism.
When I transitioned I was aware of the misogynoir I’d face as a visibly black woman and the transmisogyny that would compound that. It forced me to look a bit deeper into my own identity and Pxssy Palace provided that safe space for me to explore my identity, and it still does. I’m no longer involved with Pxssy Palace but we are still super best friends and I still go every now and again. It’s just such an amazing space for queer, trans, non-binary, people of colour – if you are marginalised then it is a space for you to be yourself. You will be believed, you will be encouraged, and you will be loved. I’m so thankful to have been part of it.
"I want to be able to know that we've made a difference, that the world has changed. And I really feel that young adults now are going to make that change."
What would you say radicalised you as an activist? Were there any defining moments that made you think, ‘I need to fill this role, I need to be this activist now’?
It really was a reaction to the way that the world has always been. I think police brutality and the way that the police treat black and brown bodies around the world has been a factor. Our bodies are being treated like animals to uphold a system of white domination. With the advancement of [camera] phones we just see it a lot more. Seeing black trans women consistently being murdered around the world got to me. I felt like no one was really saying anything, and while I didn’t really have any of the answers at that point, I just felt really helpless but thought maybe I could do something. I had a bit of a platform in the community and I wanted to use that to learn more and make a difference.
What has the last year of your life taught you about the struggle for racial justice, gender equality, and trans justice?
As a new generation, we need to take the power into our own hands. I don’t think we can wait around. It doesn’t necessarily mean breaking the law, it means not pandering and not waiting for other people to change our lives. And that’s why I’m noisy, that’s why I’m constantly pushing and constantly speaking about the things I think need to be talked about. That’s probably the biggest lesson I’ve learnt: not to wait on anybody and not to expect anything from anybody. Go out and get it.
You’ve had public dialogue with people who have expressed trans-exclusionary views such as Venice Allen and Sarah Ditum. What would you say to those who say arguing with these people in any public environment is giving their views exposure?
Disengaging when something is going ahead anyway is going to hurt our communities. If there are no representatives for us in the room we are just going to be without a voice completely. I was part of a discussion on Channel 4 about self identification and the Gender Recognition Act. That conversation was going to go on anyway – they had a huge budget – and they were insistent that it was going to happen with or without the right people in the room. There was no doubt in my mind that I didn’t want to do it, but if I hadn’t stepped up, they were going to get somebody who isn’t well versed in the way media works and doesn’t know trans issues. So I just felt like with my profile and my platform it would be silly if I didn’t. I don’t think that we should always engage but I think it is a case of measuring up whether something is going to go ahead anyway or if it can be stopped from happening at all.
I don’t really care what a cis woman has to say about my trans experience because she doesn’t know. I would never tell a cis woman how to navigate childbirth or her menstruation cycle. These are things that don’t affect me but they are still important. Having anybody tell somebody that what they’re going through isn’t important, that they shouldn’t have access to places and spaces that help us — yeah, I have a big problem with that, but I don’t really care about what they have to say about me.
After everything you’ve been through, what words would you say to young queer people of colour, trans people and queer activists?
Don’t you dare give up on yourself. Other people might give up on you, but do not give up on yourself. Everything that I have managed to do this year, after being dragged through every single right-leaning newspaper, is a reaction to me not giving up on myself. If I had given up on myself then I don’t know what I would have done. Because there is no chance I would have been able to get a regular job, without being recognised or without employers being biased about who I was as a person before I had even got into the interview room. It affects relationships, it’s affected friendships, it’s affected how I’ve seen myself. But the one thing that I stayed consistent in was the belief in myself. Find what you know to be true and stick to that and make sure that it is positive and constructive and loving. Don’t you dare give up on that because you can achieve anything.
If people want to be good allies in the fight for race, equality, gender equality, the trans fight, what can they do right now to help us QTIPOC?
Do research yourself, don’t wait on other people to educate you. I feel that most of my people are educated by default because wider society expects us to educate them and tell them our first-hand experience of things. I think they’re being lazy – especially in a world of Youtube where so many marginalised folk have put their neck on the line giving accounts of coming out stories, first time stories, hormone journeys. You really don’t have an excuse to wait around until you meet a trans person and then all of a sudden ask all of these burning questions. I think that the best thing to do is educate yourself and then treat that person just like anybody else.
© Tom & Denelle Ellis
Blazer: Pepe Jeans
Vest: adidas Originals
Pants: 2nd Day
Sneakers: Reebok Aztrek (Exclusively available at Bread&&Butter by Zalando)
Vest: adidas Originals
When your work is done what would you like the sphere surrounding you, your immediate community, or even the world to look like?
I would love to sit back in an armchair, be surrounded by young people, and think about how the world was – to remind them not to make the same mistakes we’re making now. You know, the same way that our parents told us about how women used to be treated, how black people used to be treated – black people are still being treated badly, but not in the same way they were in the 50s. I want to be able to know that we’ve made a difference, that the world has changed.
And I really feel that young adults now are going to make that change. They are already so fluid. There’s so much more interest in so many other people’s cultures, they’re more expressive visually and sexually. Young adults are coming out as gay or queer before they even get to high school and that’s amazing.
We’re gonna look completely different in about 70 years as a global society, so I’m looking forward to us all not necessarily mixing with whiteness but dissolving those boundaries, to us all mixing as a global world community. Less discrimination. I’m looking forward to people just becoming much more fluid when it comes to gender identity, when it comes to sexuality. I’m looking forward to them all becoming a lot more blurred.
Photography: Tom & Denelle Ellis
Set Design: Lucy Cooper
Styling: Luci Ellis
Make-Up: Bianca Spencer
Hair: Alexis Day