In this episode of the GenderGP podcast, Helen and Marianne are joined by poet Reece Lyons whose thought provoking performance, some months back, at the Roundhouse Poetry Slam resulted in her poem going viral. At the time of recording this podcast, Reece’s performance of: ‘I am a woman and I have a penis’ had been viewed more than 2 million times. We talk to her about what it means to be trans in Britain today.
Instagram: Reece Lyons
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‘I am a woman and I have a penis’ with special guest Reece Lyons
Hello, this is Dr. Helen Webberley. Welcome to our Gender GP Podcast, where we will be discussing some of the issues affecting the trans and non-binary community in the world today, together with my co-host Marianne Oakes, a trans woman herself, and our head of therapy.
Dr. Helen Webberley: It’s really really lovely to have you. Thank you for joining us today. I’m with Marianne Oakes, and we have Reece Lyons, who is a poet and trans woman. I’m going to let her take on the introduction from there. If you don’t mind, Reece?
Reece Lyons: Yes, I am a trans woman. I’ll just give some background information. I recently wrote and performed a poem at the Last Word Festival Final this year, which happens every year. I wrote a poem about being a trans woman and my trans experience, and then it went viral online. I guess now it has over 2 million views, something crazy like that! the reaction has been amazing. I’m very lucky.
Marianne Oakes: What prompted you to do the poem, if that isn’t an obvious question?
Reece Lyons: You know, I think there is definitely a lack of representation for trans people, and especially trans women representing ourselves. I think a lot of stuff is created about trans people, but it’s often sensationalism. I just wanted to create something that was heartfelt and which came from the actual person who is experiencing them. It’s my own experience.
Dr. Helen Webberley: I think I have had the privilege of meeting a very great number of transgender people of both genders, and all the way in between. And it’s been an enormous privilege for me. I know that that privilege isn’t afforded to other people. And there may be a lot of people listening who have never had that privilege to meet or speak with somebody, who really really understands what it means to be transgender, whatever that means. Would it be okay if we asked you to explain what that means to you? I know they are obvious questions, like how did you know, when did you know, and how did you find out about it and explore it? There are many basic concepts that perhaps other people haven’t had the privilege to hear from the horse’s mouth, if you know what I mean.
Reece Lyons: Yes, how did I know! The age-old question. I don’t really know how I knew. I think for many trans people, anyone LGBT, I kind of have this thing where I don’t want to have to explain myself or prove my humanity to people, if that makes sense. I am not saying that that question means that, but I just mean that we do live in a society where cis people want these answers. If that makes sense. And I don’t know if I can always give those answers. I don’t know if it’s nature or nurture, all I know is that I felt this way ever since I was a child, and I think a lot of trans people would agree on that, that it happens early on. But you know, it’s very personal for everyone. some people discover it later in their lives. I’m 19. I don’t know if that’s late or early or what. I think as time goes on, people are beginning to transition earlier and earlier. Recently, I met a 12 year-old trans guy, and it was just amazing to have a five-minute conversation with him. I was like, “Wow! You’re 12 years old. That’s crazy. Absolutely insane.”
Dr. Helen Webberley: I think what a lot of people have told me is that when they were younger, they knew something, but they didn’t know what. Do you know what I mean? And I think that perhaps today’s children have access to a lot more information. Obviously, the internet gives that information, all the videos on YouTube, poems such as your inspiring poem, and people willing to share that story. So children these days have much more clear ideas about what that thing is that perhaps people who were born ten or twenty years ago didn’t have a word for it. Does that resonate with you, Marianne or Reece?
Marianne Oakes: Definitely! I have to say that before 2010, schools weren’t allowed to discuss diversity. It was seen as promoting homosexuality. I think the younger generation is hopefully at least having it taught to them in school that diversity is important, or that there is diversity. Did you get any education in school, Reece? I don’t want to sound – I mean you are only 19, but obviously you’ve been through the education system in more recent times. Was anything taught to you in school?
Reece Lyons: Yes, I think that’s a really great point. Slightly going back to the original question about children, when I was growing up, there was definitely this great sense of shame, shame to be transgender or shame to be LGBT. Because back then when I was at school, we didn’t really have the word trans. We had the word gay, which is something that was heavily attributed to me. But then, growing up, I learned to separate myself from that identity, and I understood more about gender and sexuality and the difference between those two things. Like you say, Marianne, I didn’t actually know that, that before 2010 it wasn’t allowed. Is that correct?
Marianne Oakes: Yes, my understanding is that it was in 2010. I can’t think what the law is, so forgive my ignorance on that. but I was told – I wasn’t aware of it until I went to do a talk in school. And I said, “Isn’t it fantastic that we can come and do these talks.” And they said, “actually, before 2010, it wasn’t allowed.”
Reece Lyons: That’s crazy. So yeah, before 2010, I would have been in primary school at that time. And I received absolutely no education about LGBT people, probably up until the age of about 16, which is kind of sad. I went to the Brit school, my sixth form or my college. At that school, they are really great about talking about LGBT topics. They hold things like LGBT assemblies. But up until that point, I had never really been exposed to anything LGBT throughout primary school or secondary school.
Marianne Oakes: I’ll tell you something. This might sound really tiny to you, so I don’t know if it fits you or not. But one of the things I really liked about your poem is that you used the word “tranny”. I’m obviously a completely different generation to you, but years ago, it was commonplace among friends. I remember I had some friends who all lived in the same house, different apartments in this house, and we used to call it Tranny Towers. It was commonplace. Then recently, society seems to have ripped it from us as if they own it and it became a negative word. But I love that you were 19 and you used it in the poem. Were you comfortable using that word?
Reece Lyons: That makes me smile. I think’s a word of reclamation. It’s interesting that you described how it started out as one thing and then society made it into another thing. And then I guess, now, we are reclaiming it.
Marianne Oakes: If I was out socially with cis people, not with trans company, and I used it, people would be outraged at me. I don’t think you need to be outraged at me, but yes, I do feel it was ripped from me. I use the word ripped because people frown at me when I use it. Hearing it in the poem was inspirational. I loved it
Reece Lyons: Thank you. I think you’re right, and I think it’s your word to use, right? If people are going to use it against us, then surely we can own it and reclaim it and use it however we want to, because it is out word, especially when it’s used in a context to belittle trans people. There’s nothing better than trans people reclaiming it. And you said about Tranny Towers, was it?
Marianne Oakes: Yes.
Reece Lyons: I have a couple trans friends. We just say it casually. It’s not really a big deal to me. It doesn’t hold that much weight. When we are in the car and we’re going to the shops, we’re saying Tranny Trip. It’s like that. but obviously, it’s not the language that I would recommend for cis people to use. For me, as a trans woman, I do feel like I can use it and talk about it.
Marianne Oakes: That’s reclaiming indeed. It is our word, and we should decide when and how to use it.
Dr. Helen Webberley: I think as a mother teaching my children, as a cis woman trying to teach other non-transgender people, as a doctor trying to teach healthcare professionals, what I find is that people are always very scared of the words. They don’t wan to offend anybody. Talking twenty years later for homosexual people, is the word “gay” now allowed or not? Do you know what I mean? Have we managed to reclaim that word, “gay”? is it okay to use that word? And also “black”. Is it okay to call that person a black man or a black woman? So wording is very important, but also I find particularly with my work with transgender people, is that people are so scared of causing offence. They’re that scared of causing an offence that they don’t say anything at all. And they won’t speak to anybody in the street, or ask anybody questions, that conversation is stalled for the fear of causing offense. And maybe that’s because what we’ve learned from our experiences with other minority groups in history. I don’t know about you two, but I encourage anybody just to start with tell me if I’m going to use the wrong words or can you teach me what it’s like to be you? Or what does this mean to you, because I don’t really understand that. I don’t know what you think about that, Reece.
Reece Lyons: I really like that you’ve touched on that, because it’s been a topic that I’ve been thinking about a lot recently, especially when engaging with new people. So, you mentioned causing offence. That is a sentence that is said to me a lot as a trans woman. “Oh, I didn’t mean to cause offence.” “Sorry if I offended you.” And half the time, I am not really offended, because I often correct people on their language, on anything that I hear them say that doesn’t really make sense. When people say things like transgendered, I have to tell them that trans is an adjective, not a verb. And it’s often met with I didn’t mean to cause offence or I’m really sorry. But it’s not about offence, it’s about holding yourself accountable. A lot of cis people don’t want to be held accountable for their own ignorance. I am not someone who is easily offended. When I correct someone, it is because I want them to develop better as a person when they have future interactions with trans people. It’s not like a minefield of what am I allowed to say and what am I not allowed to say. Do you know what I mean?
Dr. Helen Webberley: Yes, absolutely. It’s about education, isn’t it? Whatever you call it, it’s about educating people. And people are keen to learn, aren’t they? I guess that’s what you’ve done with your poetry, using it as a way to tell the story and to teach people and shedding light, which I think is amazing. When I am talking to transgender patients, particularly parents of children who – the future is unknown, and they are often scared about the fact that their children will be different. And if treated right, the only difference may be down below, underneath the underpants. So they ask how is my child going to cope with that? So if everything else looks exactly the same as the rest of their peers because they had the right medical intervention, but downstairs they’re still going to be different in some way. That’s obviously something that you bravely approached and shared with the world. I’d love for you to just explain that here, if you would.
Reece Lyons: Right, yes. Well, the first line of the poem is “I am a trans woman and I have a penis.” I am very blunt in what I want to say. There is no point in trying to tread around the issue, walk on eggshells around what I really want to say. You know, that is the reality. Further into the poem, I kind of explore what that means and how that is basically the same. I am a trans woman, and yadda yadda yadda. The listing of all the things I have experienced.
Marianne Oakes: Listening to the poem, I felt that you encapsulated – I’m not sure how long the poem is, but within a few minutes, you encapsulated what most trans women experience. And you could write a paper on it and it would be forty pages long. You encapsulated it so brilliantly. I was moved purely by the way you approached the whole subject. Like we were saying earlier, if you wanted to teach somebody you would let them listen to that poem and it would tick off a lot of the boxes very quickly. Was that your intention?
Reece Lyons: Thank you. The poem was three minutes long, because it had to be under 3 minutes. I was channeling all this stuff that was within me, you know? I am a creative person; I am an artist. This stuff just – I notice these things a lot. And the way I express it is through writing and forming and poetry and stuff like that. so it’s kind of just everything I’ve experienced over this past year coming out of me. Things I’m saying, things I’ve read in the press, how I see the micro-agressions of how trans women are treated in society and how basically my lived experience. And I think, you know, it’s a real acknowledgement to have someone say that you’ve encapsulated it, especially from another trans person. There are so many portrayals of trans people that are just so linear, or not portrayed in the right way, or not even portrayed by trans people themselves, which goes back to what I was saying earlier about how I really want trans people to step up and speak for themselves and represent ourselves. Because no one else can do it for us. It is for me the same way I would look at something like race. Would you get something like a fellow who is a black man, would you get a white man to play a fellow? You could argue that that would be an interpretation, but you can also argue that they don’t have the lived experience to be able to play that role truthfully. So why is it for trans people with things like The Danish Girl, we had a white cis guy come up and play the role and expect it to be this amazing thing, when really I would like to see trans people doing this themselves.
Marianne Oakes: Just to be clear, I think you encapsulated it perfectly, not just well. And I do think you’re right. If I am hearing you correctly, we all seem to be on the sidelines of society, waiting to be invited in, if that makes sense. Maybe we are coming to a time where we should say that we’re not going to wait to be invited, we’re going to come in and we’re going to be who we are without apology. Would that be kind of what your poem is saying?
Reece Lyons: Absolutely! This is representation for trans people. We are the people who live through these experiences and have to tell our stories the bets. I don’t need a cis person to speak for me, I can speak for myself. And I thin pretty much all trans people have been saying that all along. It’s just whether society is willing, like you said, to let us in, to listen to us, to put us on the TV and put us n the stages and let us buy our own books. Let us do things like this which is a podcast and let us speak for ourselves, rather than have someone speaking for us or try and emulate what essentially is a lived experience.
Dr. Helen Webberley: The fear of coming in as the cis person and I feel a bit like oh dear, am I welcome? But I think what we should do is create that safe space for you to be able to share your stories and make your representations. And again, educate. I am a doctor, so in my line, your GP surgery, is there something that says this is a safe space for people of whatever? Is this a safe space for whichever minority to speak out for themselves and ask what they want? And schools, clothing stores, makeup departments, all things like that – are they safe spaces for trans people to say hello, I would like assistance, or I would like to buy something, or I would like to talk about me as a trans person. So that safety is really important to create, I feel.
Marianne Oakes: I think there is something about the trans label, I suppose. If you’re going to say I am a trans woman, you get pushed into fitting the idea. If I am going to go into a makeup store, I don’t want the shop assistant. So I try extra hard to remove any questions, but actually, I would like to think that we are moving to a part where we can be proud of the trans. And be equally valued, that the assistant at the makeup counter or the nurse at the doctor’s surgery does not – you know that we’re not worried about their embarrassment. Because I think that’s certainly part of what my motivation is. How is it going to make them feel when I walk in and they can see that I’ve got a penis? You know, the nurse, how is she going to respond to that? so we tend to try and soften or sugar the pill and the description. Actually, it’s tiring. It’s really tiring to do that. I think that’s why I was moved by the poem. It just cuts through all those barriers, loud and proud, if that’s a fair statement. When I heard that poem, I felt that it gave me permission to embrace the trans, as well.
Reece Lyons: Thank you. I think what you say is really true, and I think that like you said, “I will take up space” is one of the lines in it. I think we live in a society that is so cis normative, so like you said, trans women are constantly under this pressure to pass, right? To be essentially cis. To act like cis women, to look like them, to embody them. Which isn’t a bad thing, I think, necessarily. Of course we want to pass and we want to be safe, because we don’t want to exist in a society that wasn’t built for us, we don’t even live in a society that accommodates to trans people, like you were saying, Helen, about the shop assistant and is there something that is a safe space? It’s about striking that balance. For me, my transition to the point of being like, well, I to a certain extent, how much can I pass? Can I pass as a cis woman? And then, if I do pass as a cis woman, how can I still cling to my queer identity and proudness of being trans? Because half of me wants to pass all the time one hundred percent as a cis woman, no questions asked. But I don’t have to suffer the brunt of being a trans woman in this cis normative, binary adhering society. Then there is also another part of me, where I say that I want to be visibly queer, visibly trans. I want to embrace that identity, I don’t want to feel ashamed of that identity, I want that identity to be big and loud and proud and recognised in other people so I could see it in them and we could share this experience. I’m still trying to find a balance between that. I don’t know about you, Marianne.
Marianne Oakes: Definitely, without question. I don’t want to get off point, but I do come from a different generation. I was born to a generation where it was illegal to be gay. How has that impacted on me growing up? How has that impacted on how I might be perceived in the world? Of course, it’s affected me in the internal shame, shall we say. That trans people were the butt of the joke, or we were demonized villains in the media. It’s as if they were shackles, and again, I want to come back to how it’s great to see young people now flourishing. For you to get two million hits on your video, that’s phenomenal. That would not have happened a few years ago. Freeing ourselves of the shackles of how we’ve been conditioned. And we’re not there yet. I think you said that fifty percent of you is still trying to adhere to the cis normative view of all of this, where there is fifty percent of you that wants to challenge it and be proud of your difference, I suppose.
Reece Lyons: Yes.
Dr. Helen Webberley: I think, if I might say, listening to that is really interesting. What I’m hearing myself, and what I hear form lots of other people, is that some people want to live what they call stealth. So that nobody ever knows that they are transgender, and that their gender is different in any way, shape, or form to that which they were assigned at birth. And some people want to be as proud as punch of it, and wear as many colours and as many badges that say I am trans and I am immensely proud of it. And then of course we have all the other people in between. Then I feel that it should be your choice, where you want to present and how you want to present, today, tomorrow, or next week. And whether that is different on those different days. It shouldn’t be because you’re having to fit in with something that will accept you, it should be your choice and not what we dictate should happen. And that’s what I’m getting from what you were talking about. Does that make sense? And what I feel that society needs is education on how to allow people to be themselves so that they don’t have to pretend to be a cis woman. Maybe they don’t want to be a cis woman. And it’s about education, isn’t it? And how trans people are treated in society like you said earlier, right, Reece?
Reece Lyons: Yes, exactly. It fills me with sadness that we are even having this conversation because we really have to teach society to respect people. It’s absolutely mad. We are teaching people not to discriminate. It’s absolutely ludicrous. It just says a lot about the society that is cis normative, heteronormative, primarily whitewashed. Minorities are suffering so much. And honestly, it fills me with sadness and anger. And I think that’s why I wrote the poem. A lot of it is based in anger and pain and in speaking from my experience and wanting things to change and wanting to share it. And then going back to the stealth, you know, I think it is really interesting as well when you also look at it from a medical perspective and introduce things like hormones, right? Because you have this dysphoria where it’s like, “Okay, I want to have access to things like hormones. I may want to have access to things like surgery, facial feminization surgery, breast augmentation surgery sexual reassignment.” Or whatever it may be. Maybe for trans men it is top surgery, or phalloplasty, whatever. So, if I do gain access to those things, I will then begin to pass. But then what about my internal or social identity that doesn’t want to pass? So you kind of come at a crossroads with those values. I think that’s what I was trying to say about how Marianne said about the fifty percent. Fifty percent of me is cis, fifty percent of me is trans. As I go on this journey, as my transition progresses, I do begin to pass more and I do begin to get (unclear 27:21) more. And I do begin to access the privileges but also the misogyny that cis women face, right? But at the same time, I have this trans identity that’s kind of within, that’s kind of internal.
Dr. Helen Webberley:
Marianne Oakes: So you say that the trans part of us never leaves us. We can change the exterior, but we can’t change that we are trans. That stays with us. I agree completely. One of the things when I am working with clients in therapy, it’s getting to understand that dysphoria and working with it. You know, that we find a way to go a bit quieter. Or to say that this week, you’ve done this and it feels better but next week it could come back. I’d like to say that we do get control, I think some people never get control of it. And they can have all the surgeries and all the hormones and unfortunately, maybe because they’ve never accepted that they are trans, that they never really get control of the dysphoria.
Reece Lyons: Yes, it’s really interesting that you say that. It’s kind of scary. I don’t know where I fall into that scale.
Marianne Oakes: I didn’t mean to scare you; I have to say.
Dr. Helen Webberley: The dysphoria – sometimes people tell me that they have dysphoria about their voice, maybe about their chest, whether it is a male-looking chest or a female-looing chest. For some, it may be down below. For some it may be hair, or skin, or emotions. But everybody is different. I would just say, if I may, as I give advice, is do it because it’s what you want, not because you are trying to fit in with what society expects you to have. And maybe, Marianne, some of the people you were talking about, who never quite managed to get that self acceptance or completion with any of their treatments or path or journey, is it because they’re trying to satisfy themselves, or the outside world, whatever it might take to satisfy them? Do you know what I mean?
Marianne Oakes: I think I do. When you were speaking now, two things came to mind. How we make this decision because it’s the right decision for me, or are we making this decision because it’s the right decision for other people?
Dr. Helen Webberley: Yes, absolutely.
Marianne Oakes: And you know, we can make the right decisions for all the wrong reasons, as well. So, I’m going to be pro-counselling. Hopefully, when people come into therapy, that’s what we’re trying to encourage them to do. Why do you want hormones? Or where do you want surgery? Are you doing it because actually it is your choice? Or are you making it based about me? Or are you making it because when you go down to the swimming pool, if I haven’t got a vagina, then I’m going to be shunned? I think that’s what I see in the therapy room. Why are these people making these decisions? Again, it comes back to that owning your own trans-ness, would that be the right word? What do you think, Reece?
Reece Lyons: Yes, I agree. I definitely agree. It does come back to owning the trans-ness. I just feel like, in society, can you really blame them? Am I really going to blame myself for wanting to do something, that perhaps, can be interpreted as satisfying other people? Because ultimately, it would make me safer. And I just can’t let go of things like the murder rate of trans women of colour in particular, and how high that is. And it makes me think I wouldn’t really blame them if they wanted SRS, not because desperately they wanted a vagina their entire life, but maybe because it would make them safer.
Marianne Oakes: Interesting, actually, because throughout this conversation we’re not talking about culture, are we? And there are certain sections of society where their view of being trans is going to be totally different. and trans women of colour, definitely, what’s going to motivate them to stay safe? And you know, maybe being passable or blending or whatever you want to call it is far more important to them because their culture actually reject them.
Reece Lyons: Yes, absolutely.
Dr. Helen Webberley: When we talk about big things, like the world or that country or that culture, it’s such a big mountain to climb. And I’m just going to go back to your swimming pool, Marianne. And I’m thinking maybe if we were (unclear 32:16) centre in town tomorrow, the rules could very well easily be that we welcome everybody in this swimming pool and in this changing room, and we welcome you whatever you are. And whether you are a woman of colour who has a penis and is gay, you are completely welcome in this centre. And I think if we start small, and then broaden out, then the world will look better for trans people in the future. And we have seen acceptance through history of other minority groups. So from that point of view, the future is very rosy. And it helps so much, Reece, for people like you to be so vocal and be proud of the fact that you’re trans, proud of the fact that you’re a woman, proud of the fact that even though you are a woman, you have a penis. And you can share that with people in such an eloquent way. And small steps like this make massive strides in the future.
Marianne Oakes: What I did want to, to move the conversation along a bit, I need more poetry, Reece.
Reece Lyons: I recently have joined my first collective, which is amazing and exciting. Yes, I am writing, I am performing more. If you follow me on social media, you can find all my links and things like that to which venues I am doing. At the moment, I just work on a freelance basis, writing and performing. So yes, I am writing.
Dr. Helen Webberley:
Marianne Oakes: Do you ever travel north, Reece?
Reece Lyons: If you ever want to book me up north, absolutely! I’ll go anywhere.
Marianne Oakes: I was going to say I would have to speak and see if we could find a venue for you and invite you up. Definitely, we need to spread the words. So, let’s see if we could spread it up north.
Dr. Helen Webberley: We will definitely be sharing it on our social media channel. We will definitely put all the details in the show notes, so that anybody who hasn’t had the privilege to read and listen to Reece’s poem – we’ll put that in the show notes for you to do that. and I think you should. It is inspirational. It’s educational. And, you know, it’s the words of the young, proud, trans woman, which has obviously touched you, Marianne. I can see that. I loved it. We thank you so much for joining us. It’s been a real pleasure to talk to you. It’s great to talk to young people, it’s great to talk to your generation, Marianne. It’s great to talk to today’s youngsters. I think it’s really inspirational and exciting for the future. Thank you so much for being with us today.
Reece Lyons: Thank you so much for having me, as well. It’s been great to be with you. Thank you.
Marianne Oakes: Thank you, Reece. It’s been a pleasure.
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