Read an extract from Tash Oakes-Monger’s heartfelt new essay collection celebrating trans joy

T.C Oakes Monger Trans Joy Book

In an extract from their new book All the Things They Said We Couldn’t Have: Stories of Trans Joy, author Tash Oakes-Monger reflects upon the simple pleasure of going for a swim.

“I am a deep believer in joy,” writes Tash Oakes-Monger in the introduction of their new essay collection All The Things They Said We Couldn’t Have: Stories of Trans Joy. “There are so many stories of transness that centre unhappiness. Transphobia holds so much power over our lives that it often becomes the main event.”

Against a backdrop of rising anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, hateful rhetoric and toxic debates around trans rights, then, Stories of Trans Joy is something of a revelation. Moving away from narratives of pain and trauma, Oakes-Monger’s deeply moving collection centres the idea that joy is integral to the trans experience; the means by which trans people can not only sustain themselves in a world so determined to repress, but also one that allows them to step into their full power.

Through a series of deeply moving vignettes, Stories of Trans Joy leads the reader through the cycle of the seasons. Beginning in autumn and the shedding of leaves and identity, moving through the darkness of winter and the reality of daily life, into spring, newness and change, and ending with the joy of long summer days and being out and proud, the collection invites you to find similar moments of joy in your life.

In the following extract, Oakes-Monger reflects upon one of life’s simple pleasures that many people take for granted: going for a swim. Not only does it show what trans people can be when freed from the threat of violence, but it also opens a window onto the sheer beauty of being trans.

“Imagine what we could be if the world didn’t stifle us,” Oakes-Monger wrote recently, contemplating the possibilities for trans and non-binary people if their lives weren’t consumed by the struggle to simply exist.

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“Imagine if we could breathe fully, and always…. Imagine our potential if you just let us live. And then imagine our potential if you helped us thrive”.

Swimming Again

When our bodies are policed, it hurts. It excludes us and keeps us from our joy. I have always been uncomfortable in a changing room, but now it is near impossible.

First, I have to choose which violence to face: I am more likely to get thrown out if I use the women’s, but using the men’s is a threat I have lived with my whole life. Sometimes I chance going in. I start with the women’s, head down, movements quick, avoiding others. One time I stand in the shower for an extra 20 minutes until my fingertips wrinkle up, waiting for the voices to quiet so I know the coast is clear. After a while I am being asked to leave on almost every occasion, so I switch to the men’s. Mostly though, I avoid these spaces entirely. I turn down invitations, I change at home, I hold it rather than pick a toilet to use. I have friends who have experienced chronic UTIs as a result of this. I know people who have been threatened.

Years ago, I remember reading a long thread on Twitter that asked the following question: What would
you do as a trans person if there was no transphobia for one day? It produced a heartbreaking and joyous mix of responses, from wearing a favourite pink dress, to coming out, to trying a new lipstick, to playing sport. But the thing that kept coming up again and again was to swim. To swim in a pool with friends, to swim on holiday and soak up the sun, to jump into the ocean and gasp with the cold of it. So many voices that said if they had that day, they should just like to swim.

“Our bodies all different, and yet, for one of the first times in my life, I don’t feel ashamed to undress”

One Friday night we gather in a swimming pool in Lewisham. It is a special night where they close the pool so that only trans people can use the session and we can swim in peace. In the changing rooms we take off our day wear. Something stiff and old in me wants to be self-conscious, of my body and this small space and all the unspoken shame that lives in my shoulder blades.

But then someone catches my eye. They are wearing a business suit and smart black shoes. We link eyes just as they pull down the drab grey, revealing the most magnificent pink dress beneath. The edges of pink tulle skirts burst free of the belt strap and my eyes light in surprise. I smile, they smile back. There is power in the grey suit and smart shoes, a power that keeps us ambiguous, acceptable, perhaps sometimes safe. But there is also the power of a hidden pink dress, a delicious knowing of who you are. And then, finally, there is the reveal: a metamorphosis that only some are lucky enough to witness. Today I am gifted that, and the courage of that moment spills into the space in a way that feels contagious. The air is charged with it, like a peeling of discomfort has been shelled off with our clothes. Our bodies all different, and yet, for one of the first times in my life, I don’t feel ashamed to undress.

In the water, we can be just us. Our bodies and our swimming wear accepted. I don’t hunch or drag my shoulders inwards; I float. It strikes me how infrequently I get to do this, to open my chest and let my shoulder blades rest weightlessly on the water. The pool becomes a sanctuary of sorts. There is some talk of transness; recommendations for surgeons and advice about various medical issues are exchanged. As we tread water and talk, strangers become temporary friends.

“It is the sort of playing that heals something inside you without you even knowing”

Then, as if the water has made us all lighter, we seem to collectively let go. A friend carries Freddy like a baby in their arms. They sing a song together as they walk through the water, caught in their own moment. River gives me a piggyback and we fall into the water laughing. Our bodies are not out of place or observed, just living and breathing and laughing – joyful in fact. My chest swells with the ease of it. I don’t know if the lifeguard recognises a need in us, or if they have been told to do what happens next, but it is exactly the right thing when they pull out the floats. There are those pool noodles that you can balance on, and blow-up balls, and big square platform floats. It is a moment when I feel the air change, the excitement to play.

Because so much of being trans is made to be so serious, a struggle, a need to explain and to stand your ground again and again. That evening we didn’t have to do any of that. People clamber on the floats and wobble on the noodles and throw the balls at one another, squealing with laughter like little kids when someone is capsized. It is the sort of playing that heals something inside you without you even knowing. I climb out of the water a little taller.

We share out shampoo when we go to shower, tiny moments of care offered into open palms. Later, hair still wet, we part ways into the night, but the bubble of joy and the floats and the secret pink dress stay with me long after.

All The Things They Said We Couldn’t Have: Stories of Trans Joy by Tash Oakes-Monger (£12.99, Jessica Kingsley Publishers), is out now

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