I am scared of cisgender people: My time at a transgender swimming club

Resident transgender hack Michelle O’Toole went swimming for the first time since she came out as transgender. Here is what she had to say.

So, you all know the story that keeps getting rolled out about trans people in Oscar baiting movies, not-at-all subtle Channel 4 documentaries and the odd cringe-worthy soap opera angle. The Trans Experience™ is to the 2010s what the mawkish coming out story was to 1990s.

You will have seen the tales of a trans person’s epic struggle with the rubbish body they are stuck with, combating excruciating existential angst and enduring the disdain of all of those around them.

But what happens after the film ends? How does a trans person live? The truthful answer is probably the same way you do. We have been known to buy milk, inexplicably care about sport and eat food just like cisgender people.

But the one thing that is very different is that being surrounded by cisgender people all the time can be scary as hell and that never really goes away. Just google transgender day of remembrance if you don’t understand what I mean. I will wait.

I used to love swimming, pre-transition. But once I started my journey towards not wanting to bash my own skin off with a hammer: swimming became impossible. I first discovered the existence of the Trans and Gender Non-conforming Swimming group (TAGS) in November 2014.

The group’s Facebook page had made its way down the great transgender social media grapevine towards my eyes and ears and was warmly recieved by the transgender community, myself included.

I suddenly thought “I can go swimming now” and it hit me that I hadn’t even realised I couldn’t go swimming before. The barrier had become so much a part of my worldview, I didn’t notice it was there until TAGS appeared before me.

The aim of TAGS according to the description on the Facebook group was to provide a place that trans people could actually go swimming with only the normal amount of awkwardness that comes with using a public changing room.

As well as feeling excited at the thought of being able to go swimming without being chased out of town by pitchfork wielding ‘normalz’ I also suddenly felt a swell of pride. Transgender people were stepping up. We were sorting ourselves out.

Of course it took me a year to finally attend my first TAGS. Because doing nothing is so much easier than doing something.

I ran the costume gauntlet in a local branch of Sports Direct, taking care to avoid all the eyes that probably weren’t looking at me as I selected the costume that would cover the most skin. I settled on a ‘body suit’ that looked similar to what a Victorian era muscle-man would wear, and upon leaving I instantly regretted my choice.

I knew I wasn’t going to Laverne Cox my way into swimming, spinning heads and being amazing all over Lewisham’s Fusion leisure centre (the home of TAGS) but I didn’t want to look like something out of the Cantina scene in Star Wars either. I tried to put it out of my mind as I made my way to east London so I could get wet with strangers.

This is exactly how I looked as I jumped into the pool (Photo by Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The organisers of TAGS had thought of everything. As I arrived I was met by Roberta Francis, the founder of TAGS, and she quickly introduced me to the facility’s. The pool itself was separated from the general population, roughly 25 metres in length and overseen by a lifeguard who looked profoundly bored.

The changing rooms were also kept separate from the cisgender masses, vaguely divided up into ‘trans-masculine’ and ‘trans-feminine’.

I asked about non-binary people, and was quickly told by a non-binary person (who appeared from nowhere) that they tended to pick and choose based on where most of their friends got changed as both changing areas were fine with them.

I immediately felt safe, I realised that I could get naked in this building and it would only be as uncomfortable as it probably is for cisgender people. I had finally reached the median, I had made it to ‘ordinary’.

Before I made my way to the trans-feminine changing area to attempt to fold my two year old breasts into that ridiculous costume, Chryssy Hunter, who co-founded TAGS with Roberta, talked me through the history of the TAGS.

She tells me they first approached Lewisham council with the idea of a set time where transgender and gender nonconforming people could swim in a ‘safe space’ back in July 2014. It took them three months to persuade the council to let them have it.

Chryssy explained: “They needed convincing, not least that we would have people to use the pool so there was a selling on that. ‘Why do you need this? What’s it for? We don’t understand why you would need a pool all to yourselves.’”

This obstacle isn’t a new one, having to persuade cisgender people of the need for these things is very common. But Roberta and Chryssy eventually won the discussion thanks to a ‘diversity quota’.

The council had outsourced the operation of the leisure centre to a private company, and if that company hoped to keep the very lucrative council contract, they had to make allowances for all the letters in the LGBT according to Chryssy. And so TAGS came into being in October 2014, and it’s first swimming session took place in November.

But why did they want to start TAGS in the first place? “We don’t have enough safe spaces for trans people,” Roberta answers, bluntly. “The community have lots of spaces where we can go and take drugs and alcohol…but not a space where we can go and meet people without having to have those things.”

I could see her point, even if I never thought about the social aspect of a group like this one. When I was taking my first baby steps into the transgender world there were plenty of opportunities for me to go to somewhere terrible and do things to myself or others that you couldn’t legally do in a south London leisure centre.

But we do not dwell on the apparent lack of suitable places for socialising with other trans folk, and cut straight to the heart of the problem many face when it comes to using sports facilities. “Changing at any sports centre, changing and showering, in gendered spaces can be dangerous for trans people” Chryssy explains.

“Dangerous in terms of not having the confidence to go into them in the first place because of their own insecurities, but also actually dangerous in terms of people with non-normative bodies being challenged by normatively bodied people.”

This topic opened up the floor to a number of stories from other trans swimmers who had experienced varying levels of discrimination whilst attempting to use sports facilities.

They were as familiar as they were predictable, tales of being stared at by staff and other swimmers, being misgendered (the simple act of calling a woman ‘sir’ or calling a man ‘miss’) and one particular story involving being screamed at by children.

“People just don’t know, [they’ve] never been exposed to trans people in a positive way.” Roberta chips in, offering something of an explanation, “The only things they have ever seen is negative press for years and years, and now it is changing but then the ordinary person on the street has probably never met somebody who is trans”.

This also rang true with me, as someone who has been in a public toilets surrounded by cisgender people, knowing that most will have never seen someone like me is a source of anxiety that gets in the way of not just doing your ‘business’.

I tell Roberta that, and how we are unicorns to most people and she quickly tells me “but we’re not, we’re members of the human fucking race like anybody else, I don’t expect to be treated any different but I do expect to be treated with respect for who I am.”

And that is the main reason, as I understand it, why TAGS exists. Trans and gender-nonconforming people can’t use services in the same way many cisgender people can.

But whilst fear of violence or public embarrassment, as well as the issues many trans people carry with them around their bodies, may be the more exciting or sexy explanations: the truth is that many of the people who use TAGS are looking for basic respect. Many of the people I talk to are just looking to get from minus five to zero.

After we finished talking, I entered the changing room and started to get ready. A few people walked through, but I felt safer than I usually do shopping for clothes. When I was ready, I slipped into the pool and carefully spied on the other swimmers.

In one corner two young non-binary people were talking to an older trans man (who was able to swim without covering his chest). An older trans woman was doing laps at the other end of the pool and I overheard a small group chatting about their dissertations.

The whole thing would have seemed so ordinary from the outside, from the perspective of someone who doesn’t know what trans people deal with. But to me, I felt something I had not felt in a long time.

To be trans is to constantly be on edge whenever you are in public, but here I truly learned what the term “safe space” meant. I did not have to fear a reaction, because the people there were unicorns too.

The difference TAGS has made in the lives of the people who lead it and those who are members is obvious. Roberta’s passion for the group she has founded comes through in everything she says, telling me with pride that people have come from as far away as Birmingham to enjoy this quiet pocket away from the world that she has created.

She tells me excitedly about her grand plans for expansion, having helped to start TAGS groups in Birmingham and Belfast and looking towards having a TAGS in every major town and city.

Speaking to the people that use the pool in Lewisham, the effect TAGS has had on their lives can be eloquently summed up by the secretary of TAGS Megan Faulkner, “It has made a massive difference in my life,” she tells me just before I make my way to the changing rooms.

“I had a very small life before my transition and [TAGS] has brought me out of myself, it’s made me so much more confident, the people I’ve met, the friendships I have made and the fact that we try and help each other.”

She ends by telling me “This is activism” and she isn’t wrong.

Whilst TAGS may be seen by many trans people as a sign of defeat, as a ‘separate but equal’ measure the truth of the matter is that TAGS gives trans people a way into something most can enjoy without out fear. As I got out of the pool at the end of the session, I looked over again at the lifeguard.

Her eyes were dead, her movements were slow, to her this was just the end of another boring shift. But to me, her boredom showed that I had found a place where I could do something mundane.

I can be as boring as anyone else here, I could get back to zero after years of being at minus five and I now have a place to hide until the rest of society catches up. The fact that this, to me, is amazing has to be a testament to how scary the mundane can be for people like me.

On top of that, it is another reason why the story after the film ends is more interesting and needs more attention that it is currently getting.

You can find more information about TAGS here.