Newsmakers Arts & Icons / Richard Burnett
I first met and worked alongside trans author Chris Bergeron when she was Editor-in-Chief of Montreal’s iconic and muchlamented VOIR cultural weekly, back when I was an editor and queer columnist for VOIR’s sister publication, the alt-weekly HOUR magazine, when both publications were at their peak.
There was no denying her talent, but when Chris decided to transition she left the “fairly macho world” of journalism for the more creative advertising industry.
Currently Vice President Content Experience at powerhouse marketing and communications firm Cossette, Chris explores trans identity in her debut novel, the French-language, cyberpunk-flavoured science fiction thriller Valide (Éditions XYZ). Chris recently sat down for a candid Q&A.
I knew from a young age that I was a gay kid. What was your journey like? I knew when I was four or five that I was different. But there weren’t words to say what. When I was a kid, there was the word transsexual which always referred to people who were considered problematic in society. When I was growing up, trans people were portrayed on television as either people of the night or criminals or victims. Coming from a bourgeois home, I was afraid of those identities. So I put it aside for the longest time. For a while I thought I was just a crossdresser but then eventually I had to make a change.
How old were you?
I was about 40. You’ve known me in many iterations, back in the day when I was trying to really fit in. With the beard and the blazer jackets. Then there was the androgynous period, mixing male and female clothes. I did that from my twenties to my mid-thirties.
Then I started dressing more and more feminine every day as I changed industries, from journalism to advertising. I changed industries in part for that. I wanted to try to be myself, express my gender in a field where very few people knew me so that there was little risk of ruining my reputation.
That’s when I got the confidence to move further in that direction and officially come out.
What was your family’s reaction?
At first they shared the same fears that I had. They were Parisian with codified notions of gender. They were afraid that I would be marginalized and wouldn’t have access to a career or love if I were different. It took a very long while for my mom to accept what’s going on. Now she sends me emails about trans people in the news all the time, and my dad now calls me his daughter.
You’ve been quoted as calling journalism a “fairly macho world.”
But it is changing very fast, at least in Quebec. Women’s fashion magazines are challenging the patriarchy. Even the (alt-weekly) papers we used to work at as editors, they had all these guys. And not only guys, but a certain type of guy. It was almost a cliché which you could find in pretty much any newsroom in Quebec.
What was it like working at VOIR?
In many ways, it was the best of times professionally. It was a privilege to run something that people cared a lot about. VOIR was important, a wonderful ritual that was connected to the city – many rituals. From what show am I going to see to what book am I going to read? I felt I was connected to the heart of the city. The nine years I spent there were also my formative years. I grew up there. I wish I would have been more progressive. If I had felt that that was an option, I might have stayed longer. It’s a shame VOIR doesn’t exist anymore.
Is being trans in the ad industry an improvement over the journalism industry?
Yes. 100%. At least it was at the time. Maybe it’s a little bit easier in journalism now, though I haven’t seen a lot of trans reporters.
You are now Vice President of Content Experience at Cossette. You have a talk called “Losing my Privilege: What Becoming a Minority has Taught Me About Leadership.” Could you tell us a bit about this? I should call it “Losing some of my privilege” because I still have a great deal of privilege. I have a good job. But (getting here) I always had the feeling that if I played that card, that game, everything would be okay. The jobs would come. The world was built for people that looked like what I was trying to portray.
So that is what I lost.
I also don’t feel as invited as when you’re in a boys club. When there’s four or five men around the table, and I’m the only woman there, I experience things that women go through that I didn’t have to deal with in the past. All of a sudden you live in an entirely different world. You see the world for what it is and it’s a much harsher place than I expected.
Can the queer community be more supportive of trans civil rights?
Oh yeah! When I grew up, that whole notion of straight-acting was most valued. Gay people had to be straight-acting – essentially erased. But we did not want to be erased and that was a problem for a lot of (gay) people. I suppose we were so visible that we made others uncomfortable. I think that’s changing because a lot of trans people want to change and are very vocal about it.
Not to mention more people today identify as nonbinary.
If I was 22, would I say I’m non-binary? That would have been during the years when I used to say I’m androgynous. In the 90s it would have been very helpful for me to know there is a valid expression called non-binary.
That could be something I could step into, see if it’s either the final destination or a valid step towards something else. I really love the fluidity. There are a multitude of identities that you can be part of, but you’re also allowed to evolve and switch and move from one identity to the next. It really doesn’t matter who you like and whether you take hormones or you’ve had operations or not. That fluidity is a very interesting aspect. I hope we keep that because one of the risks of creating these micro tribes that we have in our community is that everybody stays in their camp.
Congratulations on your debut novel Valide. You must be excited!
I’m very excited but I’m also scared. In fact, I’m terrified to the point where I can’t feel my left arm anymore! The book has opened up a whole lot of questions for me professionally: do I want to spend more time speaking out about these things? Do I want to devote more time to this? Do I want to keep writing? Which I do.
Were you compelled to write Valide?
I was thinking about writing my autobiography based on my “LosingmyPrivilege” talk. I wrote a couple of excerpts and a colleague at the office told me, “I can't wait to figure out what happens next!” So instead of writing about my life, I wrote about a character from 1975 to 2050.
It is an autobiographical science-fiction thriller because it’s difficult for trans people to imagine a future for themselves. I put all my fears in there because right now the sad part is I can’t imagine a happy old age. So I wrote about a dystopia. It’s a memoir, but it’s also a thriller, an identity thriller that goes through different types of identities a trans person can have in our world today and may have in the future.
Has dating become more difficult since transitioning?
Very difficult. First of all, I’m bisexual. What I find more frustrating than anything is it seems the market for people who are interested in trans women is rather small, at least in Montreal. So what we get are people who fetishize trans women. They like the sort-of hybrid nature of our bodies and see us as sexual objects.
I guess there’s nothing wrong with that but it’s not what I’m looking for. I have yet to find somebody who is willing to have a relationship with me and carry some of the burden. Because that’s the problem, right? Who is courageous enough to go out with a trans woman? They would need to explain to their family, need to come out, get stares in the street as well. It needs to be somebody really strong, as strong and self-aware as I am.
Your journey has been a long one, Chris, but it sounds like you're in a better place today.
I’m in a weird place. I’m hoping to be in a good place. When the world gets back to normal.