First published in issue 7 of Amber Magazine, available online and at independent magazine stores.

“When I left school, I thought OK, I’ll teach myself how to be a man,” Bea tells me. “I’ve been a mechanic, a security guard, a bouncer, a private investigator, a bailiff and a high court sheriff.”

Fast-forward to November 2017 and Bea is accepting the crown for Miss Transgender UK 2017/18 in Brighton. Taking centre-stage she says: “Growing up I didn’t know ‘trans’ was a thing, so I carried on being a boy. I gave up the fight of being a boy four years ago – the toughest and the best thing I’ve ever done.”

A week after the pageant Bea wanted to “fly”, i.e. to die. “It looked like I was on a high, but I was very much on the edge. At the end of it all I was still sat on my own at night, back in Scunthorpe. After winning, I was doing photo shoots, opening ceremonies and the like. Then having to come back up north where no-one understands me… I just wanted to fuck off life”

Four years prior to the pageant the first friend Bea told she was a woman was Bobby, an old school friend and ex-military man. “I was so scared of losing him, but he accepted me straight away,” recalls Bea. “Well, you’re not any different!” says Bobby.

“Bobby’s wife Kate got me a bridesmaid dress out of her wardrobe and put me in it. I came down the stairs, with my grade-two haircut, stubble round my face and I stood there in a fucking bridesmaid dress. Kate asked ‘how do you feel?’ I said ‘like a dick, but amazing!’ Well I stayed in that all night.”

But not everyone has been as accepting. “One night, soon after I first came out, I was at a cashpoint. Someone came up behind me, pulled my wig off and punched me in the head from behind.”

Projections

The project title, Not a ‘girly girl’, came from Bea’s constant wrangle in ‘having’ to define herself against other people’s expectations of a model, a pageant queen, a transwoman, a woman full stop.

Many people, whether close family or strangers, think they know something about the inner-workings of Bea’s mind, and have a view on how she should live her life. Some criticism is harder to take than others. When an LBC radio DJ, broadcasting to more than two million listeners a week said he didn’t know what “it was supposed to look like,” referring to Bea at a pageant, she cried in her bedroom. “That broke me. It was personal, directly aimed at me. The whole bloody nation can listen – people are driving their kids to school listening to that.”

The original idea of the project was to share Bea’s personal experiences, taking a documentary approach, to challenge stereotypes and tell her story from her point of view. As our collaboration developed, the project started to include some more ‘conceptual’ shots – for example Bea posing in a ballgown with a gun. The photo is her statement as to who she is, complete with different dimensions, and an “F you” to people who think she should conform in any way.

“When I see the work,” says Bea. “I don’t see a story from someone that has followed me, I see a story created by someone who knows me. It’s so genuine and honest. I can say ‘that’s me’. That’s my life.”

We are all defined to some extent by people’s reactions towards us, positive or negative. What we didn’t know when we started working together was that one person’s feelings towards Bea were going to feature so prominently. Donna, who she’s now engaged to, came back into her life last year after.

“I’ve met someone!” I remember Bea telling me excitedly. “Well, not met them, I knew her before. This flame’s always sat there, and then flick, it’s just gone off like a firework. We dated for six or seven months when I was Ben.”

“I was working at Greggs when we met the first time round,” says Donna. “He came in as a customer and we just started chatting. He was always really cheeky. Never changed – still really, really cheeky.”

“When she came out I thought ‘well I’m not attracted to women, so I don’t think that will be for me’. I’d never been with a woman before and we weren’t together at the time so it seemed natural for me to think that way. I beat myself up about it because I think why did I think that I couldn’t love her now she’s female. She’s still the same person. I feel really guilty about that.”

My girly night out

Since Miss Transgender UK, Bea has gone on to compete in other pageants. “Undoing years of feminism,” Donna teases. “All the things I’ve fought against!”

They are pageants that were originally aimed at cis-women only, such as Miss Mystic UK, which when Bea approached them, happily remedied their rules, so that Bea and other transwomen could compete. Bea won ‘Miss Congeniality’ a title voted for by the other girls. “I didn’t have the group of girls at school, or the hen nights. This is my sleepover or girly night out,” says Bea.

Having the support of her fiancé bolsters Bea, so that she has the strength to continue enjoying taking centre stage when the opportunity presents, not just in pageants, but also setting up an LGBTQ support group, BeaYourself and carrying out equality training for organisations and institutions.

Not all transgender people want to be an activist or “public figure” as Bea describes herself, but being thrust under the spotlight is not always a choice. If you’re called out in the ladies’ loos for having a deep voice, refused entrance to female changing rooms, attacked in the street, and have work gigs cancelled all on account of simply being trans, a personal journey is no longer private anyway.

“I remember building up the courage to go bra shopping,” says Bea. “I was asked to come back around closing time to avoid offending other customers. It was humiliating.” However, she did indeed go back and ‘appreciate’ the help of purchasing a first bra.

Bea responds to other people’s take or journey, on her life, largely with warmth, patience and humour, but also some frustration and pain. At the end of it all, regardless of the number of opposing, and often fabricated views, she is still Bea, just Bea.

“I don’t always want to Bea, Miss Transgender UK, I want to be Bea the woman.”