It was only three years ago that Jack Monroe burst into the public consciousness. She was 24, a single mother living in Southend-on-Sea and had started a blog about her struggle to feed her young son on a food budget of £10 a week. She shared recipes, wrote about her life and financial struggles. Childcare issues and an inflexible shift pattern had forced her to give up her job with Essex fire service and she was living on benefits in a shared flat; the blog detailed all of this, alongside her own polemical brand of leftwing politics.
The blog was called “A Girl Called Jack” and she’d already acquired 16,000 readers when it caught the eye of a Daily Telegraph food writer Xanthe Clay. Monroe invited her to lunch and cooked her a 24p-per-portion chickpea tagine – a chickpea tagine that changed her life. Within a year, she had landed a Guardiancolumn, was a face of Sainsbury’s supermarket and had appeared on Question Time.
Her tales of food-bank Britain caught something of the spirit of the times, a make-do-and-mend heroine for the cut-the-deficit George Osborne years. The New York Times did a major profile on her as “Britain’s austerity celebrity” and the Daily Mail columnist Richard Littlejohn lampooned her 42p kale pesto pasta and described her experience on benefits as “a lifestyle choice”.
Monroe blogged, tweeted, Facebooked and Instagrammed herself into a successful career as a cook and poverty campaigner and by spring last year she had published two successful cookery books and was engaged to the chef and restaurateur Allegra McEvedy, the co-founder of the Leon chain, and was living with her and their two children in McEvedy’s west London home. If it wasn’t quite a Cinderella story, it was nonetheless a triumph of pluck, timing and social media.
And then, she had a breakdown. “It was a full-on psychotic, awful, terrible thing,” she says. “I just found myself in that dark, dark, dark place. I just figured I’d got to a point where I thought that things were never going to get any better. That I was always just going to be hounded. I felt very low. I just felt quite tied up in knots of despair and awfulness.”
She was suicidal, unable to function and months of psychiatric treatment followed. Finally, she was referred to a gender identity clinic. And then, on 11 October last year, she made an announcement on Twitter. “Yes I am transgender.”
She was, she explained, “non-binary transgender”. She wasn’t transitioning to male. She was transitioning to being neither female nor male, or at least a bit of both.
“You’re transitioning to gender neutral?” I ask her when we meet, trying to make sure I’ve got the terms right.
“Yes. I want to be treated as a person, not as a woman or a man.”
This might well be the era of trans. There’s been a huge upswing in awareness of transgender issues – the coming out of Caitlyn Jenner in America, the hit Amazon show, Transparent, a transgender actor in a transgender role in an EastEndersstoryline, a transgender Emmy nominee in Orange Is the New Black. The Guardianrecently reported that referrals to gender-identity clinics across Britain had surged, with one clinic in Nottingham reporting a 28-fold increase in the last eight years. The Boarding Schools’ Association has announced new guidelines for teachers dealing with the increasing number of transgender students.
But it’s a measure of how far it has to go that much of the mainstream press, myself included, is still grappling with the terminology. Transgender, transsexual,genderqueer, gender fluid, pansexual, non-binary… Even after we meet, I find myself repeat-emailing Monroe to check that I’m not making some terrible blunder.
Is it correct to say you are transitioning, I ask. “In transition,” is better, she says. And is it OK to use “she”? (Some trans people prefer “they”.)
“She” is fine, she says. “I’m not transitioning to male. So I don’t feel I need to be referred to as ‘he’. For some people, pronouns are a very important part of how they identify. I completely understand that. For me, I have more of a looser interpretation.”
What isn’t in doubt is that Monroe is blazing a trail. She’s one of the first people, well known in another field, to come out as transgender. The first British woman to transition in public. The first public figure I’m aware of who’s come out as “non-binary”. Reading back through her blog, it’s clear that there’s been a tension between the face she’s been presenting to the world and what’s been going on in private. And yet there’s an uneasy line between the two because Monroe’s is a life laid bare. Her work has depended upon her social media presence, which has depended upon her laying herself open to the world, with all that this entails.
I have an inkling of the forcefield around this when, the night before we’re due to meet, I can’t reach her by email to confirm our meeting spot, and when I check her Twitter feed, all hell is breaking loose. It’s a few days after Brexit and she’s lashing out at this and shooting flames at that. It’s the night of Jeremy Corbyn’s rally in Parliament Square and she is leading the charge against him; fighty and combative and taking on allcomers, telling the world she’s “an absolutely devastated frustrated furious howling wreck”. And then: “My God I’m starting to worry I’ve forgotten how to actually sleep.”
That’s it, I think, and go to bed. The interview is never going to happen. But the next morning, bright and early, there’s an email confirming our meeting spot. And when I turn up at Southend station, she’s smiling and chatty and perfectly unflustered. She moved back there after splitting up with McEvedy in the aftermath of her breakdown and we head off to a local pub for lunch and she orders a full three courses and a bottle of wine and she couldn’t be more relaxed. I thought you were cracking up, I say. “My bark is far, far worse than my bite.”
The punchy attitude, it seems, is some sort of armour she puts on, though it’s not hard to see why. For all the increased acceptance and awareness of trans issues, the world can still be a scary place. She’d pulled out of a speaking gig at Glastonbury the week before because she’d received death threats. “I bought a stab vest.”
A stab vest?
“Yes, it’s as sexy as hell. And I feel better knowing I’ve got it. But I was just like, ‘If it’s got to the point where you’ve ordered a stab vest for Glasto, it’s the point where you don’t go.’”
It’s one reason why, this month, she’s helped to launch a new set of awards to celebrate diversity in the media. “It’s just all about visibility. Even in my genre, cookery, just look who gets on the television. Jamie Oliver, Gordon Ramsay, Nigel Slater. All very nice men. All white middle‑class men.”
“Actually, I love Nigella. She’s an absolute sweetheart. Very supportive, very lovely… but visibility is key. I think as much as people moan at things like award ceremonies, it gives people role models. It provides real positive reinforcement that you can be who you are and still massively achieve.”
And when I speak to LGBT campaigner Peter Tatchell, he tells me how much of a role model Monroe has been, “especially for young people”. Transitioning in public, he says, “was a brave, bold move” and that the number of high-profile trans comings-out in recent years, alongside “impactful TV like My Transsexual Summer [a Channel 4 show] really has helped increase awareness and understanding… though in terms of public acceptance, trans people do still lag a long way behind lesbians and gay men”.
Monroe came out as gay when she was 15, and in 2011 changed her name to Jack, but what she kept hidden was that, increasingly, it felt as if her mind was at odds with her body. “I’d started to talk to close friends and family and got a lot of rejection initially. I had friends saying, ‘Don’t be ridiculous. You are who you are. You’re not really trans.’ Things like that. I was like, ‘This isn’t for you to say. I’ve struggled with this since I was about 14. This isn’t for you to tell me who I am.’ I just fell into quite a bad place then.”
The “bad place” became the breakdown and subsequently she sought a diagnosis. “Being trans is seen as a medical condition. It has symptoms and not all trans people have diagnoses or want them. But for me, I wanted and needed a diagnosis for my own sanity.”
It has obviously been a long and difficult journey. School was “very hard”, she says, and as a troubled and unhappy teenager, she developed anorexia, which kept her body in a prepubescent state. It was when she started getting better and put on weight that “I got these massive tits out of nowhere: 38E, which is quite a burden if you don’t really want them”.
She wears a chest binder most days – a tight neoprene vest – and is contemplating a chest reduction. “I got slaughtered on Mumsnet for it. But I was like, if any of you have had a chest enhancement, get the fuck off this thread. Why is it OK for you to have bits of plastic shoved in your tits, but I can’t have a bit of fat taken out of mine?”
It’s quite Monroe-esque this. She’s a match for anyone when it comes to fighting talk. But two years ago, when she was a speaker at the Observer Festival of Ideas, I saw her backstage minutes before she was due to go on and I’ve never seen anyone quite as nervous of public speaking as she was. She was quite clearly terrified. I couldn’t see how she could possibly go on stage in the state she was. But she did, and though she was so nervous she was shaking, she pulled it off.
“I was dying before I went on stage. I hate it. I really do. But I force myself. I didQuestion Time about two years ago with sick in my hair. If you zoom in on the BBC iPlayer clips of it you can see little pink bits of shrimp stuck in my quiff where, before I’d gone on, I’d gone to the loo and thrown my guts up horrendously. And then I walked out and did Question Time.”
But then, for all the Twitter spats, it’s clear that Monroe isn’t as well defended as perhaps she’d like to be. Patrick Strudwick, the LGBT editor of BuzzFeed, tells me that when he met her, he was really struck “at how young Jack is and how much of a contradiction, this entwinement of vulnerability and toughness which people can’t quite get their head around.”
Social media, he says, has led to the huge surge in trans awareness. “If you don’t conform, you go online and there are just so many spaces to speak to other people there, and for a lot of trans people, it’s actually the only safe place they have. It’s social media that has really pushed the mainstream media. And while there’s this notion that it’s extra hard for well-known people to transition in public, and extra brave, actually all trans people transition in public. Every time a trans person leaves their home, they face people in a way that’s comparable to being a public figure. And the hostility facing people who do not conform to gender expectations, the personal, psychological toll that can take is huge.
“For people like Jack, the public response can sometimes be a nice counterpoint to the stuff in the street. There’s still massive amounts of hostility and violence happening every day. On the one hand, they get, ‘You’re so brave and fabulous, come to this photoshoot.’ And on the other, there’s lots of trolling, and abuse, and of course with Jack, there’s very opinionated lefties who come at her for a whole lot of different reasons. And that’s a lot to take in a short space of time at a very young age.”
And while public awareness may be increasing, the realities of gender dysphoria and the struggles that most people who have experienced it have gone through are still misunderstood, and misconceptions are widespread. Monroe is taking testosterone. “The first months were phenomenal. My libido went through the roof. And I’ve been a lot less depressed. It seems to have balanced my hormones out. I’ve felt physically and mentally a lot better in myself.”
But she is not considering sexual reassignment surgery. “I don’t want to be crude but I have an excellent vagina and I’d like to keep it working exactly as it does.”
Do people assume she wants reassignment?
“People assume a) that I want a cock. And b) that I would like a very particular kind of sex. Both those things are completely untrue. They think that because I’m trans, I’m only attracted to very feminine women. Right now, it’s very masculine men, actually. So you don’t know anything.”
But then, that’s the thing perhaps. A lot of people, don’t know anything. Or at least not much. In the popular imagination, transgender is confused with transsexual, which most people assume means having a sex-change operation, don’t they?
“That’s where non-binary comes into it. Once you start to deconstruct the absolutes of gender you realise you don’t have to have a cock to be a man, basically. And then it’s a decision about whether that’s something you want. Whether that’s something that you think is going to enhance your life or is something you need.”
The way you talk, I say, reminds me, of the French feminists I studied at university. Deconstructing gender binaries… this was the basis of a whole school of literary theory. But what you’re doing is almost like taking these intellectual theories about gender and feminism and making them flesh?
“Absolutely. One of my problems with Germaine Greer is that she spent her whole career saying, ‘We’re so much more than our gender’ or ‘So much more than our biological sex’. And now she seeks to define us by it.”
This was Greer making her comments about Caitlyn Jenner not being a woman?
“Yes. She was someone who was so pioneering and now we’ve all pioneered past her. It’s like, ‘Bye!’ It’s like everything comes around again, doesn’t it? It feels sort of like the new 70s but as opposed to free love, it’s sort of a freedom of gender and sexuality as well.”
She’s felt freer, she says, since she came out, even in terms of what she wears. She’d been on Newsnight a few nights earlier not in her usual jeans and boots but a dress and heels.
“Whereas before I outright rejected it. I was like, ‘No! Be gone! I can’t be doing with that.’ Because I felt like it was being imposed on me. Now, I’m like sod it, if I want to slip a miniskirt on I will.”
So, what’s that about?
“Confidence. I feel more at home in my skin, so I feel more confident. I’ve been nicer since I started to transition because I’m not a ball of rage any more.”
“Before, I would be invited to a formal do and I would be walking around Debenhams for hours. Dress, suit, dress. I’d try a dress on and I’d like how I looked in it and I’d feel sexy and I’d take it home and then I’d feel ashamed of that dress. I would shove it at the back of my wardrobe and never wear it. I was completely at war with these two sides of my personality.”
And now, she wears dresses and suits. Heels and boots. “Apparently I am anti-feminine, anti-woman by being trans because I’m hammering home the message that being male is better. That’s what they were saying on Mumsnet. And I’m like, ‘No, it’s just better for me and I don’t want to be a man. I just want to be a small, masculine woman.”
In the pub, Monroe orders the vegan platter, though she looks slightly wistfully at the seafood. “My veganism is a bit like my lesbianism: there’s always going to be an exception and it’s always worth it.” And afterwards, we wander around Southend in the sun. The bunting is out on the high street and down by the world’s longest pleasure pier, the seagulls are circling for dropped chips and discarded ice-cream cones. Monroe grew up just down the road in Westcliffe-on-Sea. She got her political activism from her father, a fireman, union rep and lifelong Labour man. When Monroe texted him to tell him she was coming out as trans, he texted back: “It matters not one jot how you express yourself. Unless you become a Tory. Then you can fuck off :)”
Her mother was a nurse but was medically retired after injuring herself lifting a patient and became a foster carer instead. “There was always loads of kids roaming the house. My dad was a proper lefty. Bought me Jean-Jacques Rousseau for my 16th birthday. But he also helped set up the Fostering Network and campaigned and petitioned for foster carers to have a safe income rather than just an allowance.
“It just made me very conscious that I was very lucky to have the family that I did. We didn’t have very much but what we had, we always shared it. Dad always used to say, pop a Zedbed up, and stick a potato in the oven, and there’s space for one more.”
Her blog and her political activism began after reading about a councillor making comments about the town being “ruined” by single mothers, and she’s passionate about the need for the Labour party to change, though she’s also flirted with the Greens and the Women’s Equality party. “Yeah, we’ve all had other affairs politically. I don’t feel like I ever really left Labour. I sulked and stormed out and went, ‘I’m leaving!’ And then got to the end of the garden path and went, ‘What have I done?’”
And it was the killing of Jo Cox that brought her back. “It just felt like the right thing to do. I didn’t know her well, but I’d done some events with her… the morning after the referendum, everyone was on TV smarming about the results, and I went into the bathroom and I was hysterical. I was sobbing my heart out. It just felt like she’d died for nothing. I’d been up for two nights and was slightly losing the plot anyway, but for Farage to say, ‘We did it without a single bullet being fired.’ You’re like, apart from those three?”
Would you consider standing for parliament? “Yes. I’ve always skirted around that one, saying ‘I really want to wait until my son is a bit older.’ But I’m sick of standing on the outside shouting at the rain. I am sick of standing there yelling about how wrong things are.”
She reminds me, I tell her, of young political activists I met in Russia, the generation that includes Pussy Riot. They all had children young too. And Monroe is connected to public services – her son, Jonny, is now at school – in a way that many people of her age and generation aren’t.
Southend voted 58% leave and she says it already feels like a slightly less friendly place. “There’s places I don’t feel particularly safe in. We do have a very mixed community here but there is a culture of little England mentality. Lots of England flags hanging up. Lots of attitudes that I’d not forgotten existed but not had in my face on a daily basis. Yeah, it’s a bit of a shock.”
But she wanted to come home. She loved living in London but she’d gone almost straight from being a single mother living on benefits in Southend to living it up on the London media scene and seems to have had a growing sense of unease about it. “I would have dinner parties at home and it would be full of media and celeb friends, and a couple of glasses of wine down them they’d all be taking the piss out of how I spoke or the fact that I didn’t go to university.”
Do you ever think what you’d be doing if none of this had ever happened? The blog and the celebrity and the London media thing? You’d be a private person, wouldn’t you?
“But I wouldn’t have a thousand letters pinned to my wall. I look at them if I’m really struggling with being in this goldfish bowl. I look at the impact that it’s had outwards and that’s the thing. It’s not navel-gazing, not looking inwards. I look at letters from all these people who are picking themselves up from broken situations, from the parents of trans teenagers who tell me that I’ve helped them understand their kids, and I feel duty bound to continue with what I do.”
And she agrees with Strudwick that being in the public eye has actually helped her to come out as trans.
“Definitely. And it’s why I did it. Out of a sense of duty almost. Not only to myself but because I knew that I had a lot of transgender readers and I thought it’s about time I was honest about who I am, what I am and where I’m going. I do think that every one of us that steps forward and tells our story has value, because a lot of it is a lack of understanding. That’s where a lot of prejudice comes from.”
But still, it’s pretty tough being out there. And Monroe is so out there, on all platforms and across all media – living her life in public, transitioning in public, dealing with questions about her identity and sexuality and the dark places it sometimes takes her, in public.
“To transition to even halfway along the gender continuum is the biggest rebellion you can make and people will punish you for it,” says Strudwick. “When Jack is being [criticised] by Sarah Vine or abused on Twitter, people don’t have the first fucking clue what they are talking about. Jack is a really good example of a gender fluidity that confounds expectations. You can’t really box her in. And that’s what actually we all should be aiming for. Because one of the things that I want to bellow constantly to feminists and everyone else is that trans and non-binary people offer us the beginnings of emancipation from a binary notion of gender in which we are all imprisoned.”
And it’s true. Or, at least, meeting Monroe has made me think in a way that I haven’t in a long time about gender and how that’s constructed and the way we express that. We say goodbye at the station. And later that night, I watch her as she returns to Twitter and Instagram and her blog. Raging at the world. Lashing out at it. Then running away from it. And, then, putting herself out there all over again.