The bird of paradise flower takes four years to bloom. After a long period of gestation, it bursts from its fallow state into a plume of colour: violent orange and purple. It’s said to symbolise freedom. Munroe Bergdorf, the activist and writer, points them out as they spill over concrete and metal inside the Barbican Conservatory in London. “They’re one of my favourites,” she explains, as we wander down staircases, through the slim paths between the verdure, exploring.
Usually, the Conservatory, a glass structure built onto the iconic brutalist arts centre, is buzzing with people. Today it’s empty, just Bergdorf and I. Being in nature is the only way Bergdorf, now one of the most recognisable faces in British trans activism, can feel like an object of mystery; where she can fully and fruitfully lose herself. These days, to escape from the noise, Bergdorf likes to hike in the mountain ranges in the South of France with her boyfriend. But here in the capital, she arrives in work mode instead. Her hair is tied back in a tight bun, she’s wearing wide black sunglasses, a heavy jacket, Tommy Hilfiger denim jumpsuit, and heels.
For the past decade, Bergdorf has been advocating for transgender people and fighting back against institutional racism in a society that often denies the existence of both. As a queer, Black trans woman, she’s used to facing the firing squad; her work involves asking others to ask themselves why that may be. Consequently, she rarely encounters ambivalence. She has many allies but just as many detractors, unafraid of using Bergdorf as, she says, a “whipping target”. This loud, marginal section of society – comprising people across the political spectrum who champion a feminism that actively excludes trans folk – seems ready to denounce what she fights for, ignoring the human collateral damage that their rhetoric creates.
“I’m never going to be a national treasure and I’m okay with that,” Bergdorf says, taking off her sunglasses. We’ve settled on a bench shaded by a palm tree, the whirling water of an artificial pond babbling behind us. “Popularity doesn’t interest me and I’m not goading it. It’s not why I’m here.”
Right now, Bergdorf feels that we’re at a “pivotal point” in world history, one at which, some day, conservative people will look back and retroactively realise they were preventing trans people from living safe, normal lives. “With every single civil rights or resistance movement, there’s always pushback – Stonewall, the Aids crisis, the suffragettes,” she says. “This is a moment we’ll look back on and realise it was that moment.”
I first met Bergdorf for an interview at the end of 2018, when she was coming out of what had been the most fraught and exposing 18 months of her life. The events of that year are likely when you first came to know of Bergdorf too.
An English graduate who had left her job in fashion PR, Bergdorf had at the time been a staple on London’s queer nightlife scene, DJing at clubs like Madame Jojo’s while modelling on the side. In August 2017, she made history by becoming the first transgender woman to front a L’Oréal campaign in the UK. In an Instagram caption the day of its launch, Bergdorf thanked “all my [trans] sisters who have come before me”. Then it unravelled. Mail Online published a story featuring a Facebook status Bergdorf had written in 2015, in the wake of the terrorist attack by a white supremacist in Charleston, South Carolina. In the post, Bergdorf wrote that white people “built the blueprint” for terrorism, and their existence is “drenched in racism”. Such statements would not be that unusual today – but in a pre-BLM Britain, her language seemed incendiary to the kind of centre-right audience goaded by the tabloid media. L’Oréal UK dropped her almost immediately.
Bergdorf spiralled into a state of depression; I feel bad for bringing it back up. “Lots of people don’t come out of those situations,” she says now. “Media storms can either force you to fight for yourself or encourage you to destroy yourself, and we’ve seen so many people destroy themselves, because it’s a completely indescribable experience to be at the centre of something like that.” Bergdorf was adamant that she would state her case and come out of it, but she opted to do it alone. For the first week of the furore, she cut herself off, unwilling to bring family and friends into her aura, which all of a sudden felt toxic.
I reiterate a sentence Bergdorf had told a journalist at The Guardian from that time: “I need to deal with it without being told constantly ‘It’s going to be OK’, when who knows if it will be.” At first, she lets out a cackle and an “Oh my God!”, as if those words were the work of a melodramatic teenager. Then its context sinks in a little. Her eyes glaze over, summoning a shallow pool of tears in her waterlines. She looks off into the near-distance. “It is sad, because at that point I really didn’t know if it was going to be okay,” she says. “I’d lost everything. My mind went to some dark places…” Then Bergdorf bites her bottom lip and smiles softly. “But I’m glad that it was okay. I guess that’s the thing about rock bottom: It’s a good place to build upon.”
The silver lining to the tumult of that year was that it gave us a new, visible activist who spoke to a generation with a growing disdain for Britain’s dehumanising tip towards right-wing human rights policy. Bergdorf, always a fighter, now has an army behind her. Three years after being dropped, L’Oréal UK rehired Bergdorf; she now sits on the company’s diversity and inclusion board.
Bergdorf’s determination stems from the direct experience of being raised in a world where trans folk like her were seldom seen. She recounts it all, often gruellingly, in her memoir Transitional, published earlier this year. Written over the course of the past half-decade, it’s a comprehensive blow-by-blow account of Bergdorf’s life, woven with a hardy political commentary on what it means to be Black and queer in Britain. It’s definitive, as if every question anyone has for Bergdorf is answered in its pages. “I definitely kept thinking when I was writing it that it would be nice to draw a line underneath all of this,” she says.
Transitional reads like an articulate ‘fuck you’ to transphobic critics who’ve accused Bergdorf of co-opting the ‘female experience’ without encountering misogyny. The book confidently refutes that notion – it’s searingly personal, recounting stories of her rapist and stalker – but it’s not written to change their point of view. “Unfortunately, [anti-trans activists’] arguments are beyond logic and reason,” Bergdorf says, with a slow shaking of the head. “I think it’s gonna take some serious introspection on their part and I don’t think that will come from reading someone’s memoir that they’ll have already made their mind up about.” Instead she hopes the book will “change the trajectory of [young trans folk] hating themselves and feeling alone.”
“It feels good to have taken a fair amount of pain and confusion and sadness and turned it into something that I hope will empower [them],” she says. “It’ll be here when I’m dead and gone.”
When Bergdorf was a child growing up in the Essex village of Stansted Mountfitchet, she woke up one morning with snails on her face. She was a bug collector, and in the night, a loose lid on her snail enclosure had freed the gastropods to stage an escape effort. In homage, I’d initially suggested that we meet in an insect house at London Zoo, but Bergdorf tells me that today she hates the idea of seeing any creature in captivity. “As a kid, I gravitated towards the insects that would freak people out,” she says. “I loved finding beauty [in things] that other people didn’t find beautiful. I guess I’ve sort of felt that way myself. I was convinced I was hideous.” It helped her develop a sense of empathy for other people. Her best friend, the model Reece King, tells me Bergdorf makes an effort to “extend herself to everyone around her,” adding, “She has a big heart.”
Bullied for being both Black and effeminate, she craved an escape, and after high school headed to the University of Brighton to study English. There she made more friends like her, but struggled with an eating disorder while dealing with gender dysphoria. The two intertwined, painfully. “I first saw Munroe through a classroom door,” Jess Moriarty, her creative writing lecturer at the time, says. “She looked so upset and so unwell that it made me stop.” Moriarty recalls that Bergdorf’s work, often autobiographical, “evocative and vulnerable and excellent”, was unaffected. “Even though she was punishing herself and her body back then, she was still incredibly poised.”
Chaos has been a constant in Bergdorf’s life. “I was always conscious of it,” she says, “but it felt like home.” As she left university and moved to London, the intensity of her lifestyle, and the sudden realisation that the career in fashion she’d chosen wasn’t what mattered to her, folded into that chaos. “I would act out and gravitate towards things that were as equally chaotic as how I felt on the inside,” she says. “It led me to all sorts of situations that harmed me, some that I don’t know if I’ll ever truly heal from.”
If her book is candid, in person, Bergdorf can be elusive with details – mostly because the details are so brutal that to ask her to elaborate risks unsettling trauma that she’s in the process of compartmentalising. The job of an activist is a particular kind of emotional labour, forcing Bergdorf to regularly retread parts of her past she’s had to suffer through. But it’s also a selfless endeavour, an exercise in spreading empathy: putting pressure on the bruise exposes her reality for those who don’t know what life as a trans person is like.
Bergdorf might be on television and billboards now, but she is still a part of the statistics, and the impact of what’s happening to trans people in Britain is all around her. Just last year, her ex-girlfriend Ava – a formative trans person in her life, whom the book is dedicated to – took her own life. “She was such a beautiful person who deserved so much more than what life gave her,” Bergdorf says, her voice hollow. “She deserved to see the other side of all that’s going on right now.”
The leaning towards bigotry and othering in government has led to what Bergdorf calls a “crisis of empathy” in this country. “You see it all the time in the never-ending conversation surrounding the ‘little boats’ [crossing the channel], reducing actual people fleeing conflict into something to be feared. It’s concerning,” she says. The same is true of trans folk. A generous estimate suggests they make up less than one per cent of the UK population; most people in this country can’t call one a friend. And yet still, their existence affronts people.
It is hysteria over hypotheticals and disproved “what ifs?” that are shaping government decisions. Late last year, in an historic (and unjustified) move, the Conservative government blocked the Scottish parliament’s passing of a Gender Recognition Bill that would have made the arduous process of legally transitioning more straightforward. “When we see progress from a marginalised community at speed, there will be pushback,” Bergdorf says. “With #MeToo and Time’s Up and the ongoing conversations surrounding misogyny, there were people who felt disenfranchised by that, because they don’t know who they are without it. You give them a platform and they find other people who don’t know who they are, and you end up with Andrew Tate. It’s exactly the same with the trans conversation. There’s lots of people who’d rather chastise other people without asking themselves who they are. A lot of it is projection.”
The sensitivities over surgery for transgender children are hypocritical, Bergdorf says, given that corrective surgery for intersex children is routine in this country. (“Children should not have surgery before they understand who they are… we are all on the same page about that," she says.)
“There are some intersex children who wouldn’t be able to function if they weren’t operated on, but the large majority are operated on for cosmetic purposes,” Bergdorf says, pointedly. “That’s wrong, because you can’t flip a coin and decide what gender someone will be assigned at birth because you’d rather have that kind of kid. It’s proof that someone’s genitalia doesn’t equal gender identity. The issue isn’t about concern for kids, it’s about not wanting transgender kids.”
Bergdorf has had these conversations for years now, but they were collective conversations she didn’t centre herself within; “we” rather than “I”. But she is starting to think more about her own needs. Most occupations allow time for respite, but being an activist is relentless. There comes a point when many decide to step back and live their life, having fought for as long as they feasibly could. Bergdorf isn’t eyeing up an escape route, but she is planning for a future, likely somewhere that isn’t here in Britain. “I pay my taxes,” she says. “So why should I contribute to a system that’s disenfranchising me?”
What she is trying to imagine is a vision of idyll. “I don’t want to put my own life on the backburner,” she says. “I want kids. I want a happy life. But I don’t think I want to raise my kids as a trans parent in an environment where my rights are being constantly debated in the papers. Especially being at the forefront of the movement, I need to think about myself as well.”
Bergdorf had told me back in 2018 that she envisioned the liberation of trans people in Britain to be a long and hardy battle; the resolution of which, she said then, “won’t happen in my lifetime”. But things are already in motion. “I feel like we’re on the tip of a breakthrough,” she says. “It feels like a knife edge right now.”
The country might seem darker, but compared to when I last saw her, Bergdorf seems calm. She has grown up, too; she is, she points out, nearly the same age as the 40-year-old koi fish encircling behind us in the Conservatory pond. Experience has changed her perspective. “If I can do anything, I can play the long game, because I’ve been playing it my entire life,” she says. Bergdorf turns to me, maintaining eye contact, her body flanked by the foliage.
“I won’t stop until I see that change, even if it kills me. I can feel it coming.”
Photography by Scarlett Casciello
Styling by Angelo Mitakos
Make-up by Bianca Spencer
Hair by Jay Birmingham
Manicurist Sasha Goddard
Set design by Yasmina Kurunis
Tailoring by Faye Oakenfull
See Munroe Bergdorf at GQ Heroes in Oxfordshire, from 19-21 July, in association with BMW UK. For more info and tickets, visit GQHeroes.com