When Vicky Lee launched The Way Out club night for trans people in 1993, the ‘t’ in LGBT was still very much underground.
“Back then, long before the internet, it was really difficult to find a night out for trans people,” Lee recalls to The Independent. So she and her friend and events promoter Steffan Whitfield decided to create a rare place where trans people could wear what they wanted, meet like minded people, and have fun. But they were met with transphobia.
The Way Out club night - In pictures
“We approached 20 or 30 different venues about the concept of the club and a lot of times the response was ‘you do what?!’ And very deliberately I would approach club owners dressed in feminine clothes so the staff had to deal with me was a transgender person. We knew that if they couldn't talk to me or look at me we wouldn't be able to work with them.
“We would talk to gay club organisers or gay club owners. They were the only people who understood what we were about or even talk to us to consider the idea.”
Some 24 years later, trans people are more visible than ever. 2014 is widely seen as the tipping point for trans issues coming to mainstream consciousness. Celebrities, like Orange is the New Black actress Laverne Cox and former athlete and reality TV personality Caitlyn Jenner have brought trans issues to the fore. But that visibility has been a double-edged sword and opened trans people up to intense scrutiny.
In the US, President Donald Trump has withdrawn the federal protection of trans students. And Jenni Murray, the presenter of BBC Radio 4’s Women's Hour recently argued that “it takes more than a sex change and make-up” to “lay claim to womanhood”. She added in an article for the Sunday Times that “enjoying the privileged position in our society generally accorded to a man” called into question a trans person’s gender identity. This is a stance that mirrors that of veteran feminist and academic Germaine Greer who said it is not “fair” for a “man” to identify as a woman.
Lee sees this as laughable. She says those who deny that trans women are ‘real women’ have a basic view of the world at best. “I've listened to Jenni Murray for many years. Woman’s Hour was something that I was brought up with as a kid. My mum worked at home and I’d listen to it and she’d talk to me about it. It shamed my understanding of myself.
“What I would say to her is that every single unique individual has had their own childhood and each of those have good things and bad things, and female things and male things, and influences from mothers, fathers, daughters, brothers, uncles and aunts. It’s nonsense to say that any single person has had a female or male childhood. And as a trans person, and all the thousands of people I’ve spoken to who identify as trans, none of our childhoods were particularly male or female.
Lee’s niece, she adds, is a tom boy who climbs trees, is in the army cadets and wants to be a medic on the front line. “That’s most extreme masculine ambition. So, does that mean she’s had a male upbringing?"
“Just let a child be unique and who they’re going to be," she adds "And if that means identifying as what they want or wearing or doing things considered male or female then so what? That’s what transgender people do but we’ve had to fight for our right to do it for years."
And few people as integral as Lee to the trans community in the UK. Before the internet was widespread, Lee published guide for trans people, including where to buy wigs and shoes and the locations of trans-friendly venues across the world.
The Way Out club night has run every week for 24 years, and has called around 10 different venues home. Currently, that is the Minories bar in the City of London. Lee says that since the first night, the have never had a crowd of less than 100 people. But they are busier in the winter months. Particularly in the past, the dark nights meant that trans women were more confident about stepping outside without being spotted.
“Most of the memories revolve around the shows we put on," says Lee. "Some people come to the club to wear what they want, meet people and network. But when you go away from a night out if there's something special that happens, you go away thinking ‘OK, that had a little sparkle’.
In one venue in around 2002, she and Whitfield - who died of cancer in 2005 - put on a tribute to Ali G and Madonna's song Music. “We got some cardboard out the skip to make a glittery gold stretch limo and Steffan dressed as Madonna and we did the whole video. Every week we do something different. We’ve done every West End musical, every film, from the Wizard of Oz to Cinderella.”
Almost two decades later, Lee says the acts have become more serious and singers from the X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent, including Eva Iglesias, visit the club. And the crowd as changed too. At first, the majority of people who visited The Way Out were in their 30s or 40s, dressed in feminine clothes or were members of the fetish community. By the mid-2000s, men attracted to trans women and younger trans people began attending and the split between people dressed in feminine and masculine clothing became even, says Lee. But the entertainment and punters are of course not the only thing that has shifted. Lee has watched the community grow and change, and remembers a time when the vocabulary around gender identity remained muddled.
Lee, who has advised London’s Metropolitan Police on trans issues, recalls: “Back in when we first started we had lot of words and names, but no terminology that worked. People used words like tranny, cross dresser, and transexual. But the word transgender had never been used. I first saw it adopted by an US magazine and as soon as I saw it I thought it was a word I’d promote as hard as I can. Because being trans means crossing gender, it has nothing to do with sexuality. And our sexuality is our own private business, as is everyone else’s.”
As a woman, regardless of what Jenni Murray believes, Lee says in the future she hopes to see equal pay and equal rights, and the end to FGM and forced marriages.
"And as a trans person all I ask for is that we’re given the same opportunities and rights as everyone else, whether that is the right to wear nice frocks on a night out or to be a pilot or a doctor or a nurse."Reuse content