Munroe Bergdorf on the Power of Speaking Out
Story by Rose Dommu / Photography by Bryan Huynh
25 June 2020
Munroe Bergdorf's Instagram may seem, at first glance, to be a study in opposites. Glamorous images of Bergdorf sit side by side between calls to action and infographics sharing vital political resources. But knowing Bergdorf means knowing that those things aren't, in fact, opposites. She is both a model and an activist, and as a Black trans woman in the United Kingdom, her selfies can be as inherently political as her posts about rampant transphobia and racism in her home country. Visibility, after all, is a form of activism.
After speaking with L'Oreal's leadership, Bergdorf is hoping to keep the brand accountable as a consultant on their newly formed Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Board.
That level of visibility has often come at a cost. Three years ago, Bergdorf was fired by L'Oreal Paris as their spokesmodel after posting on Facebook about the violence of white supremacy in the wake of Charlottesville. Earlier this month, Bergdorf called the brand out for their selective solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, writing on Instagram that the company "dropped me from a campaign in 2017 and threw me to the wolves for speaking out about racism and white supremacy... you do NOT get to do this. This is NOT okay, not even in the slightest."
Clothing and earrings: Schiaparelli Couture
Bergdorf's appointment is long overdue as the UK grapples not only with systemic racism but violent, unchecked transphobia. JK Rowling is now fully out of the closet as a TERF, and Prime Minister Boris Johnson is attempting to make it harder for trans people to access healthcare and public spaces that align with their identity by reforming the Gender Recognition Act. Bergdorf was also recently subjected to public harassment from Emma Nicholson, a member of the House of Lords and business partner of JK Rowling, who shared transphobic memes and hate speech about Bergdorf on Twitter. Bergdorf is currently asking her followers to make complaints to the British parliament.
Remarkably, Bergdorf is able to face all this with steely resolve, cheeky humor and grace. Never one to turn down a chance to chat with a good Judy, I calculated the time difference and spoke with Munroe about "trying to navigate a literal uprising" and how she's still "choosing to see the good in that rather than the fact that the people running our countries are completely inept and probably Nazis."
Are you feeling the pressure to be extremely online right now, or are you giving yourself time to disconnect and unplug?
I really haven't had any time to disconnect and unplug. I feel like it's been one thing after the next. If it hasn't been the Conservative government in the UK, then it's the Republicans. And if it isn't the Republicans then it's Black Lives Matter and police brutality and then trans women being murdered and legs cut off and dumped in rivers. It's never-ending at the moment.
I feel like I can cope better if I'm of use to my community. And all of this is happening during Pride month, so now really isn't the time for me to go dark on social media. But I definitely will take some time out. I want to make sure I'm doing everything I can, and also hopefully inspiring other people to be more politically active and make them aware of what we can do, like signing petitions, reframing narratives, making people aware of protests, writing to your MPs, writing to your representatives. I don't think a lot of people did [these things] before this period of time. So I hope I can get people more actively involved rather than withdrawing.
With your platform and your work as an activist, do you feel like that burden of sharing information and resources is on you? Or as a Black trans woman, are you hoping that white allies are going to be taking up a lot of that labor instead?
One of the most exciting things about this period of time has been seeing white people become much more forthcoming with their allyship. Obviously a lot of it has been virtue signaling and a lot of it has been wanting to lend their voice to the narrative and help, but not knowing how.
So I'm hoping we're in a period of recalibration, where white people won't need so much guidance in deconstructing racism, and it won't fall so much on our shoulders, or transphobia — all forms of oppression. I hope that all privileged people understand their privilege within this time and realize how they can contribute to helping deconstruct it.
What was it like as a Black woman in the UK to see how the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade and others sparked a new push to dismantle white supremacy in the US, and has now spread around the world?
Obviously it was awful to see that, and to see Black lives, consistently broadcast over the internet, being extinguished by police and violence and dehumanized in that way. It weighs really heavy. But there was something different about this time, and it really inspired Black British people to speak up about our own oppression. Our form of racism is much different to American racism, obviously, because we've got different histories.
But it's less overt, and much more insidious. We're almost in a state of social denial about our racism. You can see that from the establishment's refusal to remove slave-master statutes, slave trader statutes, and also how out of touch our government is with regards to racism. You also question how intentional it is, and it's definitely intentional because COVID-19 has lifted the veil, as it were, on racial disparities. It can no longer be refuted.
Black people are 50% more likely to die from COVID-19 and it's not genetic. It's because of environmental racism and systemic racism. So I think people are becoming a lot more aware of the fact that we've been kept numb with regards to these issues. What we're experiencing right now is a mass awakening to this subject. What we've been saying in activist circles for decades is now becoming much more of household conversation.
The movement has really spread to every sector of society. One of the ways it's happening is a reckoning within industries across the globe about how white supremacy influences everything, trickling down to people's jobs, which is something that you experienced. Three years ago, you were fired by L'Oreal for speaking out about white supremacy and called them out once again. Now you've joined their diversity board. How are you feeling about that?
I feel really positive about it. Ultimately, my activism over the past three years has definitely changed. At the beginning, I was very frustrated and didn't really have the tools to act on what I was thinking, feeling and experiencing. But as I've gained more of a footing within the fashion industry, the beauty industry and also within activist circles, I feel more confident in my voice. I realize my activism needs to be rooted in a place of resolve and solution forming or solution building.
I mean, we know what happened with L'Oreal the first time round, but when they posted that speaking out is worth it, I felt overlooked. And I felt like how a lot of Black women feel in this moment, with regards to being overlooked, and how Black culture, Black hair, Black music, Black everything, really, is often diluted into trends. And I feel like a lot of Black people were really scared about Black Lives Matter becoming a trend, because there can't be a trend. It needs to be a movement, not a moment.
How did you feel when you saw L'Oreal's post about "speaking out"?
I thought, You're not doing this. You're not turning this into a trend. This post in itself would be great if you had resolved the situation with me and realized that I'd been sacked for speaking up against white supremacy, but that hadn't happened. I definitely saw red and posted a very emotional post about why I was angry, but then they contacted me. I got on a Zoom with them, and we had a conversation that was really human to human, woman to woman. It didn't feel like talent to brand. It didn't feel like I was speaking to the president of L'Oreal. Delphine Viguier, the new global brand president, really wants to do the right thing. She realizes there's a lot of red tape in the beauty industry, especially a massive company like L'Oreal, but her intentions are in the right place.
Clothing and earrings: Schiaparelli Couture
When she asked me if I wanted to be on their diversity and inclusion board, at the beginning, I was like, Oh, I don't know. I've got a really tumultuous history with these people. I don't know if I want to go into another relationship, but then I thought, This is what I speak about all the time. I speak about companies bettering themselves, having the tough conversations and employing radical voices that are on the front lines. So I would feel like a hypocrite if I said no to a brand that was actively looking to improve themselves.
I'm excited to work with them. I'm excited to be a Black queer and trans woman at the table of one of the biggest beauty companies in the world. I think that's such a great thing for our community, and I think people know I've got my community's back till I die.
What kind of change do you think you'll be able to implement in that position, and how do you think it could be a model for the rest of the beauty industry?
The issue with fashion and beauty is that it's largely rooted in inspiration, isn't it? And that can go either two ways: it can be really flattering or it can be really appropriative and reductive. So I'm hoping to make sure I'm able to fill in the blanks, recognize the blind spots and reduce oversight. We're seeing a lot of marginalized people come into the spotlight with shows such as Pose, Netflix shows being a savior of LGBTQ representation. We're seeing queer talent, and marginalized voices and bodies become stars.
I want to make sure that during that time, no one is reduced to just their image. I want to see full-bodied representation, nuanced representation, revolutionary representation. I want to see queer people basking in their queerness and not having to only show a certain side of it. I'm looking to push the brand as far as they can go and challenge them. Hopefully, we'll be able to see some receipts for that.
I've been one of their biggest critics over the past three years, obviously, and it's a really bold move for them to involve one of their biggest critics at the table. They actually sent me my first assignment, so I'm already going.
Any hints on what it is?
I can't say, no. It's exciting, and I'm really happy that they've taken the initiative to involve me in these conversations. It feels progressive. It's like Maxine Waters said, "Support controversial voices."
Is the movement in the UK and around the world doing enough to center Black Trans Lives?
It was so heartening to see those 15,000 people show up for Black Trans Lives in Brooklyn. We needed that. Even though there was obviously a win with Aimee Stephens' case, the Supreme Court win, Donald Trump also announced that he would be winding back trans healthcare for trans people. And in the UK, Boris Johnson is going to be reforming the Gender Recognition Act, she is winding back transgender rights. He's also saying he's going to be looking into women-only spaces and protecting them. But in protecting women-only spaces, he's not including trans women in that, which is concerning. He is suggesting that we're not going to be able to use women's refuges or public toilets.
In doing that, he's putting an already marginalized group at even greater risk without providing us gender neutral toilets. He's suggesting that we should be using male toilets. That's not taking into consideration the fact that trans women experience disproportional sexual violence. There's no stats to suggest that trans people are sexual abusers by nature. That's an absolutely outrageous thing to suggest. And it's very reminiscent of what gay men went through in the '80s and '90s with suggesting that gay men shouldn't be teachers or present in schools.
In the UK, we had a legislation called Section 28, which prohibited the promotion of homosexuality in schools, which meant that you couldn't even talk about it. So when I was in school, I was being homophobically bullied. I couldn't even talk to my teachers about it because they couldn't condemn the bully for homophobically bullying me.
We're seeing very much a repetition of that and transphobia in the UK is rife. It's horrendous and it's also institutional. It's through organizations. Last year, I had a run in with one of them called Safe Schools Alliance. They essentially set it up to get me sacked from a position with a children's charity, and it worked.
Unfortunately, people that are part of them also have a strong footing in the conservative media and are being funded by the evangelical Christian Church, who also fund Donald Trump and the tabloids. It's all linked, and we need to be aware of how linked it is so that we can all do the right thing and put pressures on MPs to stand up against this legislation.
Speaking of transphobia in the UK, we have to talk about the JK Rowling of it all. How did you feel about her transphobic shitstorm? We collectively channeled a lot of energy into it, but was it a distraction that we shouldn't have allowed? Or was it something that we really had to call out?
I think it's important to call it out. With someone of her reach and influence, we couldn't just not say anything. I do think it was a distraction tactic, because a few days after she posted that awful essay, Boris Johnson announced he would be winding back transgender rights. So I do think that maybe it was used as a tool by the conservatives to legitimize their own plans.
But at the same time, I was really disappointed because she's impacted so many queer people's lives and especially young queer people. My first thought was for trans youth and how awful that must have felt for a trans kid to see one of the biggest authors in the world, in history, essentially condemn trans people, and paint us out to be mentally ill, and take away our autonomy of identity and suggest that trans men only transition to avoid violence, like trans people don't encounter violence every day. It was just so tone deaf and willfully ignorant.
Do you think JK Rowling actually knows any trans people, as she's repeatedly claimed?
I hope there is a pushback from the new allyship. I really think that COVID-19 has lifted the veil, as I said, on how conservative governments prioritize profit over people and power over people rather than being willing to stand with progress. The fact that all of this has come during Pride Month shows that Pride Month is only valuable to conservative governments if it's profitable to them. And now that Pride Month's canceled, all bets are off.
I don't think that you can know trans people and recognize the humanity in us and talk about us this way. There's always going to be trans people with internalized transphobia that will cosign what she says, just like there's homophobic gay people that have internalized homophobia and run, essentially, organizations that are to the detriment of our community. But I don't think that she knows any trans people, no.
When JK Rowling was mouthing off, I was talking to our mutual friend Shon Faye. She was saying it might be a good thing that JK Rowling finally exposed herself the way she has instead of talking around it, because in doing that, she's exposed the rest of the world to how open TERFism is in the UK.
I don't think she recognizes the harm behind her words. And if she does, then she's not willing to acknowledge it. Unfortunately, trans-exclusionary radical feminism or gender critical feminism is a belief of convenience. It doesn't take into account the reality of trans experiences. They take the one abuser in the community, because there's always going to be an abuser in any community. But we don't take Rose West and say she's a representation for all cisgender white women, do we? Of course there's going to be a trans woman who's an abuser, but they take that one instance, circulate it and make out to seem like all trans women are sexual abusers by nature, which is so dangerous. There's abusers in every community. There's gay men who are abusers, but not all gay men are sexually abusive. There's Black men that are abusive, but Black men aren't abusive by nature. It's really damaging.
I actually texted Shon and was like, "Hello, she just exposed them all," because I don't think people really realize how systemic transphobia is. These people organize on a platform called Mumsnet, which is meant to be a forum for mothers to speak about their kids, but has instead turned into a hotbed of transphobia and fear-mongering, and an organization for how to target, bully, berate and belittle trans women.
Clothing and earrings: Schiaparelli Couture
They don't go after trans men because they believe that trans men are actually lesbians that have been forced by the trans agenda to transition to avoid male violence, which again, doesn't take into consideration the fact that trans men also experience violence. So yeah, I do definitely think [Rowling's] made more people aware of how deep this goes and how counterproductive it is to progress. It's so tone deaf to do this within pride month.
It's the LGBTQ community, not LGB. Trans women fought for all of the community. It was a Black trans woman that started the gay rights movement, yet we're still the ones fighting for our rights within our own communities. So I hope that it definitely opens a lot of people's minds. I do think that it did open a lot of people's minds, but unfortunately, it's also highlighted the fact that there's a huge problem with transphobia within conservatism.
You joke that there's no Pride this year, and I've also been wondering, what is Pride during a pandemic, during a global reckoning with white supremacy, during a movement in America to defund and abolish the police? Are you still finding ways to engage with Pride?
Pride can never be canceled. As long as we've got community, we've got Pride. I think we know that, but I don't think that heterosexual, cisgender society knows that. So when they see that we don't have physical Pride, I think a lot of people think it's just free rein and that it's canceled this year. Just because we're not turning up in our rainbow gear in Soho, that suddenly it's not a thing.
June is our month. We own June. At the end of the day, Pride is political. I think we lost our way with Pride, looking back. It became very, very corporate. It's not necessarily a bad thing that brands get involved in Pride. I think it's a necessity, but there's an art to it, and you need to make sure that you are actually providing for the community if you're going to be involving your products in it.
But a lot of people had forgotten about the political angle of Pride. And during this time, our rights are literally on the line. So more now than ever, in our lifetime, in our generation, we are reminded that Pride is a protest. We need to be lending our voices, our privilege, our resources, our allyship and making sure that every single person within the community is being called up.
Are you feeling hopeful about the future?
I always feel hopeful. If you lose hope, then you lose everything. I have a lot of hope for how people are taking initiative on themselves to do the right thing, and seeing people writing to MPs to oppose transphobia, which is not something that I ever thought I would see. I never thought that I would see white people reckoning with their own white supremacy and their own internalized white supremacy and trying to decolonize their mindset.
I feel positive because this will all filter into everything that we're not addressing, such as dating, such as we're not really reckoning with Black people's experience in healthcare yet, and how Black women aren't believed when it comes to pain, which leads to childbirth becoming a leading killer of Black women. Ultimately white supremacy is present in everything.
I'm hoping that when grappling with the dehumanization of Black people, that we can then start to deconstruct it all and start speaking about how white supremacy impacts everything. It's not just police brutality. It's everything that leads up to that person getting a job as a policeman and then disseminating their white supremacy through their profession. So I'm hoping that we speak about systemic racism throughout everything. We're starting to, but it's a huge conversation because, ultimately, our society is built on the oppression of Black people.
What hopes do you have specifically for Black trans women?
I really hope that there's much more solidarity with Black people and Black trans women, because it's not just that we have to grapple with white supremacy, we've also got to deal with transphobia within our own community. And obviously, that's a holdover from colonialism and white supremacy, because transphobia is a product of white supremacy. I posted today about the link between transphobia and homophobia and racism and white supremacy, and how before colonialism impacted the world and slavery and European white supremacist rule, in ancient cultures, on every single continent except for Europe, trans people existed in one way, shape or form.
Once people understand the root of transphobia, they'll start to recognize that this is also what we're fighting against. I hope that when Black people that don't realize it already, that homophobia and transphobia are products of the same source of power that oppresses us on behalf of our race, I hope that they rally around us and protect us and realize that we're stronger together. One of the big reasons why we're marginalized as a community is because we've been divided and conquered. If we can become more unified as a community, then that's so much more power within our community, that's so much more ability to get things done and hold people accountable and make sure that white supremacist ideologies are squashed and stifled. But at the moment, we're so fractured as a community, it's hard to get things done and hard to fight when you're fighting against your own people as well as the powers that oppress you.
Do you think everyone needs to get their Harry Potter tattoo covered?
You know what? I think that what Daniel Radcliffe said was incredible. I think that there's so many people that have emotional attachments to those books. We should definitely honor that and draw the power from the books and draw the power from the memories... but don't buy her other stuff.
I already got my Harry Potter tattoo covered though, and I will not be getting any more.
It's a personal choice. So many of us grew up with that book, and it's so ingrained into our culture. It's such a shame; It's a real shame. It's like your faith coming out and saying something against you. But just bear in mind going forward—
Voldemort was trans.
Voldemort was butch and trans.
For our 2020 Pride cover series, PAPER tapped photographer Bryan Huynh — and his team of digital art pros led by Rodolfo Hernandez and Willem Stapel — to reimagine our subjects, sculpt their bodies and transport them into otherworldly environments.
The experimental production began with a Zoom — connecting with each talent over video and talking them through the process of a face/ head scan iPhone app. Once the rough scans were exported, Huynh went back in to fine-tune facial details, humanizing the rudimentary imagery. Alongside subjects' features, Huynh's team sculpted digital bodies posing talent into positions that would match their unique environments, which were also digitally made by hand.
When it came to the fashion, stylist Matthew Josephs worked closely with our cover stars, as if they were on set, to ensure their individual aesthetics translated in pictures. Josephs sent the final looks to Huynh's team, who then built the clothing into their 3-D spaces.
Three months of dedicated hard work later under COVID-19 restrictions, PAPER is proud to present this year's Pride portfolio.
Photography: Bryan Huynh
Fashion editing: Matthew Josephs
3D art lead: Rodolfo Hernandez
Art direction: Jonathan Conrad
3D clothing art: Jiyoon Myung
3D face art: Patrick Blankenzee
3D accessories design: Joohee Jeon, Yousun Hong