My trans queerness and the tigers in the room

Rachel Saunders
4 min readFeb 5, 2021

90s Britain was very much a wilderness for queer folk, a no-go zone for queer time travellers much like 2020 is for all of us. Yes, things were getting better post the AIDS cultural crisis, but not by much. Section 28 closed off all school help and advice, and culture at large was pretty much let the gays send themselves up, for what else are the queers for? This pretty much defined my understanding of anything queer and especially trans during my formative years. Transsexual was a cross you bore, and every women’s magazine told you of the hardship.

If ever there were stations to that cross they were the casual homophobic language in the playground, the cross dressing gay comedian on TV, the weeping confessional of wives and children, and the expose that, gosh, that minister has a funny walk. These stigma never really left us, as while the weeping blood has slowed, the stations remain. To be queer in the 90s was very much a scourge to be castigated with, made literal with beatings, fire bombings, and murder.

This mise en scene set my late teens and early twenties, though by the time I waltzed down Canal Street for the first time it was more ironic and twisted to suit the battle cries of the queer folk I encountered. God, the Blackpool nights, train journeys watching the sunrise, and falling out of bed at 10:00 to hand in an essay. Rights of passage that shaped my early queer self. What was my identity without a dance floor and pining for the cute women who would never touch me due to my transness?

Juxtaposed identities, the horrifically awkward longing for all the wrong women alongside this baby bird womanhood that I barely knew how to be. There was no mother hen with magic make-up wand, though getting changed into a short skirt in a Canterbury pub just to go babysitting rates somewhere up there with awkward. The ringer certainly had its way with me, but reframing those late 90s and naughties misadventures through a 2020s lens does bring a smile.

Couch surfing became something of a personal sport as I tripped through so many experiences, never quite still in the moment, my queerness on my sleeve as much as it was about any explorations in gender lands. I took my gender as a given, steeling myself through encounters which stripped me back to one part, a fulcrum of the masculine that only a knife could fix. My queerness centred on this, framed by every person I kissed and slept with as a challenge to their identities. My queerness was trans.

Of course, it is easy to look back and say that everything worked out, that I tamed all those tigers. Yes, a knife did cut through the knotted issue that subjected a mirror to other’s queerness. It shattered the final wall that hesitated. This was 2008, when the world was sleepy to the trans tipping point, Tinder, and Instafams. Youtube queerness was only just seeping into our understanding, and by god did I make some horrific missteps that caused me to rethink my entire world view.

I still pine for women out of reach, not because I am trans, but because, well, life and non-connection. My queerness is as defined by those tamed tigers as it was by the knife. Cut me and I bled the same shade of red as the next person, only this time it salved their sexualities as much as it settled my soul. My sexuality was never really my own, as it reframed everyone I encountered just by my very existence. This is the cardinal virtue, and for society sin, of being non-cis, for it is never our problem, but those of the cis world. Our tigers and crosses are not of our own making, but shaped by the world around us. Remove the claws, and our tigers become something else.

The fact that this 90s kid has embraced queerness as an identity is as much a shock to me as is the reclamation of queer as a positive. My identity has shifted and morphed over the last 25 years, and that I now feel at ease with all the messiness of desires and attractions without labelling it is due to queer folk reimagining a world where crosses and tigers are set adrift and left far out to sea. Being trans is a personal artefact, a mere parlour conversation piece that a knife resolved; for many others it is the core centre of their worlds where tigers and crosses are taken on daily. There is no finality to the trans experience, and those older I get the more I acknowledge that the same goes for my queerness. In the end the best I can do is lay my cross down and take tea with the tigers, and do my best to walk with those who still wrestle with theirs.