MUN­ROE BERGDORF

From the L’Oréal scan­dal to walk­ing in New York Fash­ion Week, the Bri­tish ac­tivist and model speaks to Leomie An­der­son about the 12 months that changed her life, and why she will never stop rais­ing her voice in sup­port of the mi­nor­ity.

Gay Times Magazine - - CULTURE -

In Septem­ber last year, when for­mer PR worker Mun­roe Bergdorf high­lighted the struc­tural in­jus­tice served against peo­ple of colour, her life changed for­ever. The post, later stolen by a for­mer univer­sity ‘friend’ and sold to a top tabloid news­pa­per, would lead to her in­fa­mous Good Morn­ing Bri­tain show­down with host Piers Mor­gan and the start of a year she could never have pre­dicted.

Now a prom­i­nent ac­tivist, Mun­roe has be­come one of the loud­est voices within the LGBTQ move­ment - and in par­tic­u­lar for trans women of colour.

Di­rect from the heart of New York Fash­ion Week, Mun­roe speaks to fel­low Bri­tish model, friend and cre­ator of LAPP Leomie An­der­son about dis­rupt­ing the im­bal­ance on white priv­i­lege, her con­tin­u­ing fight against un­just trans rep­re­sen­ta­tion within Bri­tish me­dia, and what the fu­ture holds for one of the most prom­i­nent voices in the in­dus­try.

LA: It’s been a year since the whole L’Oréal crazi­ness and now look where you are. It’s nuts to think what lead you to this point. Did you ever think it was go­ing to turn into this?

MB: I don’t think there’s any pre­par­ing any­one for when they be­come the fo­cus of a me­dia scan­dal. You never know where it’s go­ing to go, and it’s some­thing that pushes you to dis­cover a lot about your­self. I dis­cov­ered my voice in that time. Up un­til that point, I was only re­ally speak­ing to peo­ple within my com­mu­nity. Once my voice broke out of the echo cham­ber and, I guess, into the con­scious­ness of other peo­ple who didn’t know me per­son­ally, I got a lot more feedback and started to be­lieve in my­self more. I started think­ing about other av­enues and fash­ion is def­i­nitely an av­enue that I’d re­ally thought about but... if you look at the way the fash­ion in­dus­try is go­ing with in­clu­sion of dif­fer­ent bod­ies and iden­ti­ties, it’s around the right time. I don’t know if the L’Oréal con­ver­sa­tion con­trib­uted to that as well. To think about how queer peo­ple are in­cluded in the in­dus­try.

LA: And how they’re rep­re­sented.

MB: Yeah.

LA: Have you been at any shows this sea­son you’ve seen and felt in­cluded and rep­re­sented? MB: Yeah! New York Fash­ion Week this sea­son has been so queer and I think it’s been done so well. I know that you in­cluded a lot of queer peo­ple in your pre­sen­ta­tion which was amaz­ing, and just see­ing peo­ple get their ab­so­lute life on the run­way was in­cred­i­ble. That you gave them that plat­form to do with what they saw fit. That’s what it’s about; pro­vid­ing the plat­form, not just fea­tur­ing a queer per­son as a to­ken ges­ture. It’s about pro­vid­ing a plat­form and pro­vid­ing space for that per­son to shine in their own right.

LA: Ex­actly. MB: How did you get to that?

LA: To be hon­est... I worked with a cast­ing di­rec­tor and I said I wanted the pre­sen­ta­tion to be about self ex­pres­sion as op­posed to just the clothes. I knew I wanted it to be rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the en­ergy of LAPP, so he helped me cast the amaz­ing voguers. In my head, it didn’t mat­ter if they were queer, straight, bi. You can dance, your per­son­al­ity seems fire, I want you to be part of my show. It wasn’t about me mak­ing sure there’s one trans per­son, one this or one that. It wasn’t about to­kenism but who has the per­son­al­ity to bring it to life.

MB: Yeah.

LA: I feel like that’s how we’re go­ing to progress within this in­dus­try is when we stop do­ing the to­kenism. I feel that was the mis­take made with you. They (L’Oréal) wanted to have some­one who rep­re­sented an ideal they had in their head, but weren’t pre­pared for you to be speak­ing up about the other sides you rep­re­sent like your­self as a woman of colour...

MB: That’s why I love the work you’re do­ing as an ally of the LGBTQ com­mu­nity. I think you’re a shin­ing ex­am­ple of us­ing your plat­form, LAP; a great ex­am­ple of in­ter­sec­tional fem­i­nism. And you reached out to me dur­ing the L’Oréal scan­dal and that’s how we are now friends.

LA: I wasn’t a fan of peo­ple try­ing to drag you

and I didn’t want you to feel alone. I know in those sce­nar­ios you have peo­ple around you say­ing dif­fer­ent things and I wanted you to know there’s some­one who is here for you. It can be over­whelm­ing.

MB: We both know what it’s like to be in the me­dia and get the back­lash. You did a video about Meghan Markle and I was read­ing some of the com­ments about how black women’s feel­ings about the Royal Fam­ily are in­valid.

LA: It angers any­body to see peo­ple from a marginalised com­mu­nity speak­ing up; peo­ple want to si­lence them. They’re not used to that. So­cial me­dia has played a big part in build­ing re­la­tion­ships and build­ing friend­ships and al­lies. You didn’t know what you were go­ing to say or what was go­ing to hap­pen... MB: It was on a per­sonal page. It wasn’t a state­ment that was meant to go out any­where. It was sold to the Daily Mail by some­one who didn’t like me that went to univer­sity with me. LA: Re­ally?! MB: Yeah, did you not know that? LA: I didn’t. MB: It was a per­sonal vendetta. LA: That’s crazy. Ev­ery­thing works in such mys­te­ri­ous ways be­cause now we are here and you’ve so many peo­ple look­ing up to you. What’s is it like to be seen now as a role model? MB: It’s crazy, es­pe­cially com­ing to New York. When I look at my in­sights on In­sta­gram, the ma­jor­ity of peo­ple who fol­low me are from Amer­ica, so to come and peo­ple know who I am and com­ing up to me and thank­ing me for do­ing what I’m do­ing... and fa­mous peo­ple. It’s crazy and has been a very crazy year. All of a sud­den, it was like ‘boom!’ in ev­ery sin­gle news­pa­per in the world, pretty much. LA: Yeah, it was ev­ery­where. MB: To see my face on Al Jazeera and my friends in Dubai send­ing me pic­tures in the pa­per there. I mean South East Asia, In­dia, Aus­tralia. It was in­sane. It gave me a world-wide fol­low­ing and ral­lied to­gether peo­ple of colour. There were thou­sands of pieces and YouTube videos. It wasn’t about me, it was about how big cor­po­ra­tions and brands treat peo­ple of colour, and how white peo­ple largely have a priv­i­lege in so­ci­ety that isn’t talked about. I’m glad it opened that nar­ra­tive in a pop cul­ture sense as I don’t think that’d been talked about in the same ca­pac­ity.

LA: Def­i­nitely not. Hav­ing you be so raw and open, and even though you say you weren’t pre­pared for it, in a way it was bet­ter as you said just what was on your mind with­out hav­ing to sec­ond guess.

MB: I was pre­pared for it more than most peo­ple as my back­ground is PR. I knew how to carry my­self which is good as I would’ve been eaten alive by the Daily Mail. The way they went af­ter me and con­tinue to go af­ter me some­times over the last year has been aw­ful.

LA: How do you cope with that?

MB: Some­times it does get a bit much. The Times called me ‘the trans Tal­iban’ which was… I was sur­prised be­cause how is this le­gal? I re­mind my­self that this is trans­pho­bia and racism. It’s not nec­es­sar­ily about me, it’s about all of us, and I’ve got my com­mu­nity be­hind me.

LA: I want to take it back a lit­tle bit. Be­fore ev­ery­thing blew up, who were you look­ing to­wards as an ally?

MB: I grew up lov­ing Cyndi Lau­per. She’s the un­sung hero of the LGBTQ com­mu­nity. A lot of peo­ple recog­nise the work she’s done, but she’s done a lot for rais­ing money and aware­ness – es­pe­cially dur­ing the 80s – of the HIV/AIDS cri­sis. See­ing her do that, when she didn’t have to. It’s way be­fore Madonna cot­toned onto the gays. Madonna wasn’t do­ing what Cyndi was do­ing, she was show­ing ally­ship in a com­mer­cial sense, but Cyndi was out there rais­ing money on the ground and help­ing. See­ing that made me think that you need to ex­er­cise your em­pa­thy. You can’t feel it and not do some­thing. It was way be­fore the gays were ‘cool’. It was be­fore sup­port­ing queer peo­ple was cool. Be­fore Lady Gaga, Christina. It was a time when sup­port­ing the LGBTQ com­mu­nity was detri­men­tal to your ca­reer – she still did it! Same with Cher; those real gay icons. El­iz­a­beth Tay­lor, she ran a se­cret buy­ers club for peo­ple with HIV/AIDS so they could ac­cess med­i­ca­tion. Peo­ple like that who go out of their way and help peo­ple. My aim at the mo­ment is to re­ally fo­cus on how I can use my priv­i­lege to pull other peo­ple up. There’s an amaz­ing ac­tivist at the mo­ment called Aaron Philip who I’m ob­sessed with. She’s a dis­abled black trans model. She’s just got signed and that has taken the com­mu­nity ral­ly­ing around her to say that ‘this is ridicu­lous’. You can’t only have dis­abled mod­els when they look like they could be able-bod­ied peo­ple. You need peo­ple to be vis­i­ble. You can’t just hire trans women when they look cis. Hire vis­i­bly trans women be­cause they’re who need to see them­selves re­flected in the me­dia – not trans women who look cis and can pass through so­ci­ety un­both­ered. That’s some­thing I’ve toyed with back and forth this year, es­pe­cially af­ter get­ting surgery. Am I putting the right mes­sage out there?

LA: When it comes to your own per­sonal choices, do you think twice about them be­cause you’re in the lime­light?

MB: It’s about look­ing at the in­ten­tion of your ac­tions. I got surgery for my­self be­cause I was more vis­i­bly trans than I am now to other peo­ple. I still view my­self as a trans woman. It’s one of my in­ter­sec­tions and I’m proud of who I am. No mat­ter how I look, I’m still trans. I used to have such a shame and in­ter­nalised shame of be­ing trans. I think all trans peo­ple do. There’s this need or want to pass all the time and that comes... well it’s linked to safety. That we could be at­tacked. It’s about mak­ing sure I’m able to ar­tic­u­late how I feel and why I’ve done what I’ve done. That I don’t feel any­one else needs to take that path as well. I had my surgery as part of – al­though not the rea­son to­tally why - the doc­u­men­tary I did with Chan­nel 4 called What Makes a Woman. I’m so pleased with the feedback of that.

LA: It was re­ally good. I watched it with my mum. MB: Ahhh, thank you. I wanted peo­ple to see the re­al­ity of it and to see the hu­man as­pect of my char­ac­ter as I felt I’d been dražed through the

me­dia so much. This is who you’re de­mon­is­ing. To be called th­ese hor­ri­ble things by the right-wing press is feed­ing into a nar­ra­tive of trans­pho­bia and fear. We can see the same go­ing on with Is­lam­o­pho­bia in the me­dia and that’s why we need to all stand up. If it isn’t you, it’ll be some­one else. And if it isn’t some­one else, it’ll be you. It’s only a cer­tain amount of time be­fore it is you, so stand up for other peo­ple.

LA: Unity is im­por­tant.

MB: Def­i­nitely.

LA: How would you de­scribe who Mun­roe is to­day?

MB: I’m in a bit of a weird po­si­tion be­cause I get de­scribed as a model and I de­scribe my­self as a model be­cause it sim­pli­fies what I do, but what I’m do­ing is a merge be­tween body pos­i­tiv­ity and greater di­ver­sity rep­re­sen­ta­tion. I feel like that’s an in­flu­encer as well. I’m bridg­ing so many dif­fer­ent pro­fes­sions of in­flu­ence that it’s dif­fi­cult for me to de­fine what I do.

LA: How do you deal with other peo­ple not want­ing to see you suc­ceed?

MB: I al­ways think about where this is com­ing from. Why do they feel like that? I think when it comes from other trans girls, that as­pect of envy or jeal­ousy, I un­der­stand be­cause to be a trans woman who doesn’t have any­thing or feels like they have noth­ing or might have been kicked out by their par­ents - you don’t know what they’re go­ing through. I know what it feels like to be that trans girl who feels ex­tremely frus­trated at the world and frus­trated at the rate of her tran­si­tion and how slow the process is, and how so­ci­ety doesn’t af­ford me the same re­spect that I give them. And to see some­one get what they’ve al­ways wanted, I think that must be quite dif­fi­cult. I would say to those girls that I’m here for you. I’m do­ing this for all of us and that I was that per­son. I was that girl, so if they can see that I can achieve what I want to achieve, hope­fully they can, too. And if a cis man is treat­ing me in a way that I see is in­flu­enced by my in­ter­sec­tions, I can iden­tity and say this is misog­y­nis­tic and trans­pho­bic and I can break down his be­hav­iour – and not take it per­son­ally. While it is per­son­ally of­fen­sive, it says more about him than it does me. I think we’re re­ally hav­ing th­ese con­ver­sa­tions and peo­ple gen­er­ally are be­com­ing more aware of why peo­ple act how they act. We saw this with Ser­ena Williams at the US Open. Peo­ple say­ing that ‘this wouldn’t hap­pen if she was a white woman be­cause of how her be­hav­iour was viewed by a white man – would the out­come have been the same if the ex­change was be­tween two black women or two white men?’ The con­ver­sa­tion dy­nam­ics are be­ing an­a­lysed, and I think that’s ex­cit­ing. It’s al­low­ing peo­ple to be a lot more aware of their place in the word, and that’s the main goal. LA: It’s been so great to watch your con­fi­dence grow and watch how you’ve brought all th­ese dif­fer­ent peo­ple to­gether through your voice and through you be­ing your­self as one – while tak­ing all that shit you get on­line.

MB: I put up a sta­tus say­ing ‘Never al­low some­one else’s per­cep­tion of you to be­come your per­cep­tion of self’. I sur­prised my­self with that com­ment as I was like ‘woo girl, you just came through with the T’. I also put up one say­ing that ‘I want peo­ple to look at my growth and feel that they can grow in the same way’. I look back at the past year and I am gen­uinely proud of my­self. Ev­ery sin­gle birth­day, we get re­flec­tive and I won­dered if 12 year old me would be proud of 31 year old me. I gen­uinely think they would be. I went to an ex­hi­bi­tion called 29 Rooms and there’s an ‘in­ner child room’. It said to think about your­self as a child and the first im­age you have in your head, think about the face of that child, and then look at your­self in the mir­ror and see the face of that child in the re­flec­tion. Write a note to the child, and I wrote ‘Don’t fight who you are. You’re ex­actly who you should be right now’. As a trans per­son, there’s this whole idea that we change and that we be­come some­one else. We don’t change and I’m not a dif­fer­ent per­son. I’m a de­vel­op­ment of who I should’ve been. I feel that my tran­si­tion has been get­ting back to that child be­cause if I’d just been who I al­ways should’ve been in­side, and nur­tured that part of my­self in­stead of try­ing to be some­one else then it would’ve saved me so many prob­lems. It prob­a­bly would’ve made my life dif­fi­cult be­cause of ev­ery­body else, but there would have been so much less soul search­ing. I think that’s how I want peo­ple to see a tran­si­tion. If we’re only go­ing on the ex­te­rior as­pect of a tran­si­tion, who doesn’t tran­si­tion? Ev­ery­one goes from girl to woman, baby to adult/ non-bi­nary per­son or boy to man. A tran­si­tion is just a pro­gres­sion and most of the celebri­ties out here, or cis women, you’re try­ing to tell me that’s not a tran­si­tion? That Kylie Jen­ner isn’t a tran­si­tion? All girls tran­si­tion. We be­come girls to women and I want peo­ple to think of it like that. It’s no dif­fer­ent. It’s growth.

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