FIND­ING ME

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So­phie White talks to Ir­ish transwomen about style, iden­tity and be­ing them­selves

Some­times choos­ing an out­fit is sim­ply about get­ting dressed, but other times it’s about so much more. SO­PHIE WHITE talks to transwomen Aoife and Lay­lah about

style, iden­tity and be­ing your­self.

How do we find our style? It’s im­pos­si­ble to boil this down to any one thing. We cadge ideas from our sis­ters, our friends, our friends’ sis­ters. We pick over mag­a­zines and, mag­pie-like, as­sem­ble the hun­dreds of tiny de­tails and broader im­pres­sions that will even­tu­ally make up our aes­thetic. Many of us strug­gle with this process, though for the av­er­age cis woman [cis­gen­der refers to any­body whose gen­der iden­tity cor­re­sponds with that as­signed to them at birth], there are plenty of other cis women to be in­spired by.

Wi­nona Ry­der, So­phie Dahl and Courtney Love were my teenage style coven. My “look” – it may be a shade gen­er­ous to call it that – was a de­voted ap­prox­i­ma­tion of these women’s style. But con­sider never hav­ing had that – no inspiring peo­ple with whom you could iden­tify. Imag­ine in­stead that in place of in­flu­ence and rep­re­sen­ta­tion ex­isted hos­til­ity and an­tipa­thy.

Trans iden­tity is slowly pen­e­trat­ing mainstream cul­ture. In 2014, Ama­zon Prime se­ries Trans­par­ent be­came a land­mark mo­ment in TV for telling trans sto­ries and giv­ing work to trans per­form­ers like mod­els Dara Allen, Casil McArthur and An­dreja Pe­jić. So what’s it like to find ex­pres­sion amid oppression?

Aoife Martin be­gan pre­sent­ing as a woman in her teens in the 1980s in Dublin, but didn’t come out as trans un­til she

was in her for­ties. She Tweeted about com­ing out in work at Dublin’s Master­card of­fices, and since then she has be­come an ad­vo­cate for trans is­sues, speak­ing at events and on ra­dio about #Ac­cep­tance Mat­ters, the Master­card cam­paign to pro­mote in­clu­siv­ity. “I could’ve kept quiet, but I don’t want kids grow­ing up ashamed to be them­selves, the way I did. I grew up in an era when it was shame­ful to be trans. We were rep­re­sented on tele­vi­sion as ei­ther se­rial killers ( Si­lence of the Lambs) or vic­tims of se­rial killers; there were drag queen co­me­di­ans too. Rep­re­sen­ta­tion mat­ters, and pos­i­tive rep­re­sen­ta­tion re­ally mat­ters.

“When I used to dream of tran­si­tion­ing, I thought I’d wear short skirts and high heels, but it’s not like that at all. I’m happy in slouchy leg­gings and socks. Com­fort is key,” ex­plains Aoife. The com­fort fac­tor seems, in this in­stance, to go be­yond the prac­ti­cal. It’s the so­lace of re­al­is­ing that your phys­i­cal iden­tity at last aligns with your true, au­then­tic one. “My big thing used to be not be­ing seen as trans, but as a woman,” ex­plains Aoife. “It’s when I stopped car­ing that peo­ple stopped notic­ing. I don’t get stares now. I’m not sure if that’s be­cause I ‘pass’, but I don’t care, and that’s the se­cret.”

“A lot of trans­peo­ple find it dif­fi­cult to go into high street stores. It can take years to build up the con­fi­dence to do that… and to know what suits.”

Find­ing her way around the world of women’s clothes and make-up was tricky, as the kind of knowl­edge usu­ally handed down from moth­ers and older sis­ters was not forth­com­ing. “In my teens, I loved the look of The Ban­gles,” says Aoife, “but rather than dress­ing up, I al­ways dressed down. I grew up in a small vil­lage, which wasn’t the place to try out things. I just wanted to fit in and not get no­ticed.

“As transwomen, we have to find our own way, we have to nav­i­gate, to break in,” says Aoife. “I know a lot of trans­peo­ple who find it dif­fi­cult to go into high street stores. It can take years to build up the con­fi­dence to do that. It can also take years to build up the courage and con­fi­dence to know what you want and what suits.”

For many years, Aoife avoided her of­fice Christ­mas party. “Af­ter I tran­si­tioned, I felt

I could fi­nally go be­cause I could wear what I wanted and feel com­fort­able in my own skin. Last year, I had my hair and make-up done. Cis women take these things for granted, but I’d never ex­pe­ri­enced this be­fore.

But I just went for it, and it was so lib­er­at­ing.”

For 21-year-old Ir­ish model and au­thor Lay­lah Beat­tie, the route to assert­ing her in­di­vid­ual style was sur­pris­ingly straight­for­ward. From an early age, she was wear­ing women’s clothes and lip­stick, she ex­plains. “I was identifyin­g as a boy be­cause I didn’t know what be­ing trans­gen­der was, but I was wear­ing fe­male clothes and car­ry­ing hand­bags since about the age of 12. By the time I so­cially tran­si­tioned at 17 or 18, I’d al­ready carved out my iden­tity. I knew what colours suited me, what fashion I liked.”

Laugh­ing, she de­scribes her style as be­ing “ag­gres­sively fem­i­nine” from her early teens on. “Peo­ple [in school] got used to me pretty quickly. It started with high­lights in my hair and then once I re­alised I could bleach it at home, you couldn’t stop me.”

Grow­ing up in a small town and at­tend­ing a school con­sid­ered to be quite rough, Lay­lah did have dif­fi­cult and trau­matic en­coun­ters, but she cred­its her love of read­ing and cul­ture with help­ing her to de­velop a strong sense of self and a unique style that mixes dis­tinctly Stevie Nicks vibes with shades of grunge. “I gelled with quite a pop­u­lar group in school, so I had a safety net with them. If I was on my own, peo­ple would some­times try to in­tim­i­date me. I would lose my­self on Tum­blr too. At 10 and 11, I was read­ing about peo­ple who were non-bi­nary and who were push­ing the bound­aries of gen­der. It’s funny, though, in all of that time, I never stum­bled upon a transwoman. I think if I had, I would’ve just gone, ‘Oh, that’s me!’”

Caitlyn Jen­ner was Lay­lah’s first ex­pe­ri­ence of a fa­mous transwoman. “It’s get­ting bet­ter, though… ev­ery time I open Vogue, I see Hari Nef – a trans model who is just so amaz­ing. When I be­gan work­ing here in Ire­land as a model, I was only ever booked in for “al­ter­na­tive” shoots. But when I’d ar­rive, the pho­tog­ra­pher would be disappoint­ed be­cause I didn’t look al­ter­na­tive enough. I felt peo­ple didn’t recog­nise that I could just be an ed­i­to­rial model. That’s been very dif­fi­cult to ac­cept. We’re not mov­ing in that di­rec­tion yet in this coun­try.

Lay­lah’s per­sonal style evolved or­gan­i­cally, even while she was identifyin­g as male. As she’s got­ten older, she’s found shop­ping the high street rel­a­tively easy, even at 6’3” – “My friends think I’m so lucky, I al­ways do well in the sales. I love Mango; TK Maxx is re­ally good for women’s jeans with long legs and for long cardi­gans, so I will al­ways have a soft spot for that shop.” Re­cently, Lay­lah was the first trans model ever to walk in the L’Oréal Colour Tro­phy cat­walk show. “There were peo­ple in that room who are queer and part of the LGBTQ+ com­mu­nity, and so many of them came up and con­grat­u­lated me. It re­ally felt like some­thing to be in that show.”

Casil McArthur mod­el­ling for Marc Ja­cobs in 2017 Aoife Martin Lay­lah Beat­tie

An­dreja Pe­jić on the H&M AW16 cat­walk Fol­low Aoife on Twit­ter @aoifem­rtn and Lay­lah on lay­lahtalks.com.

Jeffrey Tam­bor in Trans­par­ent

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