To celebrate Transgender Day of Visibility on March 31st, Verse sat down with Ezra Théodore Tillett. Ezra is currently studying Creative Writing and Linguistics, with a minor in French at UniSA. Much of his writing deals with his experience as a transgender, gay man. Although, his current bout of writer’s block has him building miniature libraries in his spare time. A tiny kitchen is also on the cards.
What are you working on at the moment?
If I am being genuinely honest right now, I got so stuck trying to write that I just stopped entirely and started building a tiny library. Like out of paddle pop sticks and foam core and paint. I have a tiny shoebox library.
Do they all have little book titles and everything?
Oh yeah. I had friends over, we listened to Hozier and made tiny book jackets that are like this big. They’re great.
How long have you been writing for, and why did you start?
I honestly don’t know. I—Forever. I had the bottom drawer of my mother’s filing cabinet as a kid, and I used to fill it with manila folders of all these different character profiles and plots. I think when I was, like, four I wanted to grow up and be a cat and then when I was five I wanted to be an author, and it hasn’t really changed since.
What are the main issues you are writing about? Is it about trans experience?
Yeah, I mean it’s about being trans sometimes. I’m gay as well, so it’s about that. It’s about how I see the world. I really enjoy writing about people, much more than necessarily about concepts. Or I like to write about concepts by writing about people dealing with them. I like the Stephen King adage that he doesn’t write about extraordinary people; he writes about ordinary people and extraordinary events. I enjoy drama—not personally, I hate drama—but in writing, very effective. Moments of conflict. Moments of decision. The calm before the storm or the middle of it.
So what is your creative process like?
I write to understand. I often don’t know what I’m thinking about until I’ve started writing about it.
My best friend, who is also a writer, she says that when she writes she wants it to be like a very carefully arranged bouquet not like a garden. And I’ve always been of the opinion that I would prefer the garden. Someone once told me they would describe me as ‘verbose’. And I just fully leaned into that for a while and I was like fine. I will just write nothing but extremely descriptor heavy, long pieces. There’s a stylistic feature in Japanese manga where time and action are essentially suspended in order to have aspect-to-aspect transitions, and explore identity and character through the space they inhabit and how they inhabit it. And while I’m a cleaner writer now, and I’m better now at curbing those verbose impulses, I like to think my work still maintains an element of that timelessness and sensory connection.
I used to think that I had no voice because I would just write a whole bunch. I sort of thought ‘I’m the one who writes a lot, that’s my style.’ I started transitioning and now I suddenly do have a voice. And I think that’s very interesting. It is wild to me. It is so wild to me how much coming out changes. I don’t think I realised the depths of dysphoria and, like, brain fog I was under until I was halfway through transition and inexplicably thriving.
Did you feel like the fog was lifted? What was that like?
It just feels like becoming yourself. It’s like waking up. You feel like you’ve just been performing a character your whole life – some kind of weird, formless blob in the shape of a human but you don’t know if you actually are one? I only really knew how to cater to others and perform the role that was expected of me.
I do hesitate to use analogies like that because it implies that we’re not human somehow but that’s what it feels like. That you are just going through the motions; there’s some kind of un-real, dream-like element to it.
It’s also so hard to describe because a lot of the time it’s very conceptual. It’s hard to put your emotions into words. I intellectualise everything and, yeah, it is still very difficult to describe.
What about when you were a little kid? Were you just not thinking about it?
Did you think about your gender much when you were a kid? You don’t until you’re made too. You don’t until you hit puberty and go ‘oh, so now I’m a sexual object.’
I maintain that I was a thoroughly androgynous child. I was like ‘yes I play with Barbies’ and I love the fact that I independently came up with the concept of lesbians as a child. I had no idea that gay people existed and I had no male Barbie dolls and I wanted them to have a family. So I was like ‘what actually happens if two of them get married, like it’s fine.’
I read a lot. Like, a ridiculous amount. I sometimes think about how much I read and I’m like ‘what happened, Ezra? What do you do with your time now? Go on twitter? Watch the same shows on Netflix over and over again?’ No, I read and did art more than I did anything particularly gendered.
Also, gender is very mutable. You can’t define it. I mean, without describing your body, tell me how you know you’re a woman. You can’t. You just know. It’s just a feeling. It’s not that you feel like you fit the role. It’s not that you fit the performance of it. It’s some combination thereof and also some other element that can’t be put into words.
Writing is how I understand but also not everything can be written or put into words and it’s not meant to be.
Transgender Day of Visibility is coming up on March 31st. What does visibility mean to you?
Well, visibility means being seen, but it’s much more than being seen like you would see someone in a photo. Visibility in this context is about understanding someone else’s perspective more than it is about simply acknowledging that they’re there. It’s about engaging with that vast retrospect and all the context that surrounds being a trans person and understanding our experiences on a more complex level. And also, I’m white and middle class and I have a lot of privilege that isn’t afforded to other trans people and while I don’t think that invalidates my perspective, and I definitely don’t want to dismiss myself—it’s worth noting that I can only speak on my own experiences.
Do you think that more needs to be done for the representation of people who are transgender?
I definitely do. Most of my friends are British, so I don’t know many of the Australian statistics—and for my own mental health I avoid keeping up to date with a lot of media written about trans people, but I know that there are five anti-trans hit-pieces published every single day in the UK and that’s ridiculous. And for a marginalised group, the amount of media coverage that paints us as some kind of monsters, predators, or as pretenders or any combination thereof is absolutely ludicrous and disgusting. I do think that it is really important that trans people themselves are given the platform and the agency to speak about their own issues. So yeah, I do. I do think there needs to be a lot more work done.
Do you think that your writing is your way of fighting that narrative?
It is and it isn’t. Sometimes it is. I think my piece 106 [Suite for 106 in C minor] last year definitely was. That was genuinely about me being hate-crimed on a bus so…
That was real?
I mean, I read it and I was horrified while I was reading it.
That was the approach and I felt like an asshole. I know that reading and writing and most art is supposed to be an emotional process. You’re expressing your perspective so someone can react emotionally to it but also I don’t like writing the ones that are designed to make people feel bad and that is what it aimed to do.
It was creating awareness. I finished it thinking ‘I didn’t know that this is what it’s like before’.
It was supposed to make you feel upset in a way that was focused, yeah, not in a way that just made you feel like shit and then you have to go on with your day.
What are some things about being transgender that you wish more people knew?
I honestly get mistaken for a trans woman so often that it’s both hilarious and extremely frustrating. I am a man! Trans women aren’t the only trans people that exist. It needs to be mentioned that when it comes to fighting for equality and rights and respect and fair treatment that those frontlines are populated disproportionately by transgender women of colour more than anyone else. And that visibility does tend to mean they are the people who face the most discrimination and the most of the ugly side of being publicly trans. But also there is less of a voice for non-binary people, and for trans men, for agender people, for intersex people, even, than there is for trans women—they do predominate the platform. And while I feel bad because I would never want to speak over trans women or trans people of colour, it is necessary to give everyone a platform because while a lot of the issues I face are universally applicable to trans people, a lot of them are also different to what effects trans women or non-binary people, etc.
I think it’s important to realise that when you’re cisgender—which is to say not transgender—you don’t have to spend emotional and mental energy every single day to justify your gender or general existence. It is exhausting down to my bones to explain myself over and over again, often in conversations where the topic is do I or do I not deserve respect or equal treatment. Sometimes I’m too tired to interpret my existence for you and be endlessly patient and educational, and sometimes it shouldn’t have to be my job to.
There is a lot to allyship that isn’t marching and shouting about who needs rights. It’s a lot smaller: it’s about welcoming people, it’s about giving them voices, and letting them feel safe a lot more so than screaming on the streets. Something as nuanced and tiny as including your pronouns on your social media (even if you think it’s unnecessary) can take a step to normalise the practice of doing so and allows trans people who spend all day being misgendered the space to request the right pronouns without facing harassment for doing so.
Do you have anything else that people can do as allies?
Being an ally isn’t just about being tolerant of your friends who are not like you. That’s not enough. It’s about actively and openly being accepting and stepping up whenever you can. About having difficult conversations, maybe, with your friends or loved ones who are homophobic or transphobic or racist or bigoted in whatever way. It’s about being supportive and using your privilege as a tool to elevate the perspectives that need to be heard. Speak to the marginalised people around you and ask what you can do as an ally, day-to-day, that can actually help them.
So the Taboo column for this edition is personal finance. Do you have anything to say about personal finance?
Yeah, for trans people a lot of our transition costs for a whole number of things, not just surgery and hormones, won’t be covered by insurance. A lot of it has to come out of pocket. So trans people are disproportionately working-class and it is difficult to accrue wealth or really even get by sometimes. I’ve had international friends tell me that they have to choose between groceries or hormones that week. And there’s only so much I can do. So part of allyship is, I mean, if you can give $20 to a trans person’s GoFundMe for surgery costs. It is so easy to do. Just go on twitter; it is constant. Maybe it’s only constant on my twitter but there is someone fundraising for their transition all the time. That is a really easy thing to do as an ally is to actually put your money where your mouth is.
What is your advice to others?
It’s okay to be trans. It’s okay to question if you’re trans. It’s okay to question that and then realise you’re not. The only thing that is a prerequisite for being trans, the definition of being trans, is that you don’t identify or feel a connection with the gender you were assigned at birth. That can mean any number or myriad of things. It might mean experiencing dysphoria, or not, it might mean you know exactly who you are and what labels to use. You can also have no idea.
That is completely okay and I suggest finding someone you feel you can trust and letting yourself process it. Maybe perhaps another trans person maybe someone from the Rainbow Club. Just be gentle and have empathy.
Interview Anna Day
Photography Ezra Théodore Tillett