Non-binary poet Kae Tempest reflects on coming out and gender journey: ‘It’s just beginning’

Kae Tempest smiles while holding a microphone

British poet and multi-hyphenate talent Kae Tempest has reflected on their journey to “living more truthfully” as a non-binary person.

Tempest, a 36-year-old spoken word performer, playwright, artist and novelist, told Shaun Keaveny on his The Line-Up podcast that publicly coming out in 2020 was “only the beginning” for them.

“I’m on a journey, like we all are, to accepting myself and living more truthfully,” they said.

“Although I have had gender dysphoria since I was born, that journey began at the beginning of my life but it’s also a journey that begins right now.

“Yes I’ve come out a couple of years ago and I’m trying to live more truthfully and begin a journey of transition but you know, it’s not over it’s just beginning.

“I do feel more comfortable in my skin, I feel huge relief about finally being more truthful about my experience but also, unfortunately, it’s not an easy resolution, it continues.”

In their moody, cyclical fourth album, The Line Is a Curve, Tempest reflected not only on resilience and the repetition of life but how music and identity twist together.

“People are many many things, in one day, in one lifetime, so many things,” Tempest said on their album, adding that they are now ready to “live” with their past self.

“The beautiful thing about music is that the same song can be so profoundly important to people that are very different, people who have very different experiences and have grown up in very different ways but the same piece of music can be profoundly moving for different reasons.”

Transphobes feel ‘tyrannised’ by trans people, Kae Tempest says

To Kae Tempest, living within the binary offered them little comfort. But breaking the binary is not necessarily a violent or confusing act. It can start by simply asking questions.

“The lived experience of someone that exists really comfortably within the binary can somehow be challenged if you say: ‘oh I don’t exist there, that doesn’t suit me, I don’t feel successful in that binary’,” Temptest said.

“‘And, in fact, I was born this way and me being like this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be like you, it’s beautiful if you are successfully female or successfully male, I’m glad for you but actually there is something beyond that’.”

“All my life I’ve had to understand there are other ways because my way wasn’t available, I suppose it’s just about trying to settle the discussion,” they added.

“There always has been this idea of the binary is a construct which is useful in maintaining a status quo and sometimes to try and open the mind beyond that is challenging and frightening, then things get really confusing and the reality gets mixed up.

“When the reality is it’s just asking for some consideration that there are other ways, not just your ways.

“All my life I’ve had to understand there are other ways because my way wasn’t available, I suppose it’s just about trying to settle the discussion.”

In the often draining “debate” over the lives of trans people, human rights campaigners have warned that the vitriol thrown around in abandon by British pundits and politicians about trans rights is “harmful” to society.

The Council of Europe, the continent’s top human rights body, condemned “anti-trans narratives” troubling Britain as a “challenge to democracy“.

“People are so tyrannised about the idea of trans bodies,” Tempest explained of the state of trans rights. “It’s a huge topic to bring up,” they said, adding that “people get really triggered”.

Kae Tempest performs at Music Hall of Williamsburg in New York City. (Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images)

With their soft south London accent, Kae Tempest soared to the front of the capital’s performing arts scene in their 20s.

The rise was quick. In 2013 alone, they won the Ted Hughes Award for innovation in poetry, was nominated for a Mercury in music and was named one of the nation’s 20 Next Generation Poets.

Spending their days rapping in front of food vendors in an attempt to score a free meal seems distant to Tempest, as does the time they rapped their way to meeting the American rapper Method Man.

“When I was intent on getting my break I thought that every single opportunity to tell rhymes to people might suddenly open up an opportunity where I could do this,” they recalled.

“I was obsessed and had no fear. I had so much conviction and ego, I just couldn’t shut up.”

Tempest managed to rap their way into nightclubs and venues by rapping a few bars to the bouncers – including the guards for Method Man.

“M was just in the dressing room with a white robe on, a platinum M medallion and white socks and sitting in a chair and there were all these French women,” Tempest said.

“He was clearly trying to enjoy himself and then I turned up looking like a state, I used to wear three to four hoodies and he was just like why are you here, what do you want, who let this person in.

“I got about two bars into the wrap and he wasn’t having it.”