“Marginalised people don’t always choose to be activists:you’re forced be

Paula Akpan speaks with trans activist Charlie Craggs about the importance of conversation, allyship and self-care as an activist.

When author and activist Charlie Craggs came out as transgender in 2013, she realised there was little conversation around trans people in the media. And what was there was often negative – and, even worse, false. “This was before the trans tipping point and no one was having these discussions,” Craggs says. “When I would tell friends about the amount of abuse I was getting in my everyday life for being trans, they were shocked because it just wasn’t being talked about by the media, so I decided that I’d start the conversation.”

Craggs is known for her activism and book To My Trans Sisters – however, her best known project, Nail Transphobia, originally started as her final major project at university. Craggs came up with the idea of travelling around the country with a pop-up nail salon to paint people’s nails, giving them the chance to chat to a trans person. “As well as highlighting transphobia and raising awareness, it’s a way of creating allies. I wanted to have these conversations on a national level.” Not only is the art of painting someone else’s nails intimate, but Craggs believes that an activity so simple .We don’t need to talk about trans issues, we could literally talk about the weather. It’s more the act of sitting down and basically holding hands with a trans person. It humanises us. If you sit down with someone from a particular community you’ve never engaged with before, you’d probably realise that they’re not what you think.”

In its 2017 Trans Report, Stonewall found that 41% of trans people had experienced a hate crime or incident in the last 12 months, while 40% of trans people adjust the way they dress because of fears of discrimination and harassment. Craggs hopes that campaigns like Nail Transphobia will help increase allyship and make people more likely to intervene when a trans person receives abuse – something that the 25-year-old is no stranger to. “Early in my transition, I was attacked at a bus stop. No one said anything, no one intervened and no one checked to see how I was after. It was in that moment that I realised how important allies are in not only the fight for our rights but the fight that is our everyday life.”

For Craggs, allyship is a conscious decision. “It’s an act, it’s a verb, it’s active, you step up and stand in,” she says. “You don’t have to be confrontational but, for example with my own experience at the bus stop, someone could’ve called the police, or asked if I was OK… You’re just as bad as the bigots if you don’t call things out. Bigotry only blossoms where it’s allowed and throwaway comments and jokes lead to violence.”

Photo: Claire Lawrie

You’re just as bad as the bigots if you don’t call things out. Bigotry only blossoms where it’s allowed

Merely existing as a trans person presents real and visceral dangers, let alone travelling to meet complete strangers who have never met a trans person before. However, Craggs points out that she and other trans people receive abuse and ignorance, regardless. “People are going to attack me whether I’m painting nails or not. This is my way of coping and processing everything. Marginalised people don’t always choose to be activists – often, you’re forced to be one. When I started this campaign, I frankly thought my life couldn’t get any worse because of the amount of abuse I was getting. Doing this work was my way of being able to sleep at night by doing something positive to combat all the negative.”

The activist’s work revolves around conversation, whether that’s sparking conversations with cisgender strangers while doing their nails or within her own community of trans sisters through her book, To My Trans Sisters. Described as “a love letter to our community from the women who understand” by bestselling author Jennifer Finney Boylan, the collection of letters written by over 80 trans women offers words of advice and lessons learned. Craggs says: “Often, when you start transitioning, you don’t have other trans people in your life and you struggle without anyone to give you advice or be a big sister to you. I reached out to incredible trailblazing trans women – scientists, politicians, celebrities, writers and more – and asked them to write a letter sharing what they wish they had known when they began their transition.”

Knowing I don’t have it in me to fight every single battle means that I tailor my reality to shut out certain things

From receiving emails from trans women around the world who’ve told her that the book has really helped them to seeing people leave her pop-up salon with a bit more understanding, the response to Craggs’ work has demonstrated that there is a clear need for it. However, she’s still learning how to look after herself mentally and emotionally. “I’ve had activist burn-out twice this year. I’ve also found that November is a really tricky time for me, with Trans Awareness Month, my campaign’s birthday and Trans Remembrance Day so it’s something for me to be aware of going forwards.”

Something Craggs says she’s had to accept, early on, is that in spite of how much of her energy she puts into having these important conversations, it’s OK and, in fact, necessary for her to pick and choose her battles. “I don’t have it in me to be calling things out online or to be debating my womanhood,” she says. “Knowing I don’t have it in me to fight every single battle means that I tailor my reality to shut out certain things. For example, I don’t go on the explore page on Instagram, because I know there’s a lot there that wouldn’t be good for me. It’s knowing what triggers you and watching out for those signs. Plus, I’m a Pisces, so I’m sensitive.”

Over the five years she has been working on Nail Transphobia, Craggs is mindful of ensuring that she is not seen as a spokesperson or an authority on all things trans. “I recently did an event with ASOS and had enough budget to hire other trans girls to do it with me. It meant that I could bring in trans women with other identities and from other walks of life, such as black and brown trans women and Muslim trans women. It meant that they could take the conversation even further.”

Another way the activist is seeking to widen the reach of this conversation around trans issues is through her recently launched nail brand, Nail It. With a number of nail decals (stickers for nail decoration) available for purchase, profits go back into Nail Transphobia as well as other trans-related charities, while each decal raises awareness. “Nail It is about using nails as a catalyst for a conversation starter around trans issues.”

A key measure of success for Charlie Craggs will be when the projects she has started are able continue without her: “I’m trying to make Nail Transphobia bigger than me so that everyone is having these conversations, even when I’m not in the room.”

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