I identify as non-binary, I guess, with a bit of a shrug,” says Travis Alabanza, with a fag in one hand and a bottle of San Pellegrino in the other. We’re speaking in a square in Bristol a few weeks before the 26-year-old writer and performer releases their first memoir, None of the Above: Reflections on Life Beyond the Binary. “I say ‘non-binary’ in the book, but I use the words ‘visibly gender-nonconforming’ far more,” they explain. Alabanza’s art is direct, as is the vocabulary they use to describe themself: “I’m more interested in the [word that describes] how I look because that’s why I experience the violence,” they say.
Alabanza has been a breath of fresh air in the world of theatre since they entered the scene in 2015. Two years later, in 2017, they became the youngest person ever to be awarded an artist residency at the Tate. Their most prolific work, the seminal 2018 play, Burgerz, has been performed around the world and drew on Alabanza’s experience of having a man throw a chicken burger at them on Waterloo Bridge. Their 2020 play, Overflow, was a never-timelier monologue built around trans safety in public toilets. Transforming experiences of violence and abuse into creative endeavours is not new for Alabanza and None of the Above is structured around seven phrases spoken to them – beginning with “so, when did you know?” and finishing with “this is for us, baby, not for them”.
Throughout their memoir, Alabanza is in constant dialogue with their transness, positioning their gender identity as reactive to a British culture that has increasingly fostered transphobia and abuse. Despite the often heavy subject matter we’re discussing, Alabanza is electric company, a testament to their charisma as a performance artist. There’s the distinct sense that despite being only 26, theirs is a life well lived.
“I think some people will read this and think it’s only pain,” they say, tapping the copy of None of the Above between us. “But it was so f***ing cathartic. I feel so much better in my gender after writing this. I was really in a place of crisis around my gender when writing it, and I’m not anymore. I feel so much prouder to be trans, which sounds so f***ing corny, but I am.”
That “crisis”, Alabanza goes on to explain, came from a sense of uncertainty about their gender identity – something they admit to feeling hesitant about sharing. “I really didn’t want to put out there that I wasn’t sure if I was still trans or not,” they explain. “The book is really asking, ‘do I continue to transition or not?’ And I kept on avoiding that as an arc. I actually made a promise to myself that I would never talk about my medical transition.” The weight of this section prompted Alabanza to pause writing for a month and consult their therapist: “He was like, ‘you can go against your past if you have a good reason.’” Their reluctance to talk about it came from never having read anything that expressed a sense of doubt. While None of the Above’s greatest asset is its nuance and lack of concrete conclusions, Alabanza is apprehensive about how it will be received: “I really am nervous about other trans people reading my experiences of stopping oestrogen, starting oestrogen, starting laser hair, stopping laser hair… I’m still unsure. I think I still won’t be sure until I see more and more trans people read it.”
Linguistic pedantry continues to dominate any discussion around trans life and Alabanza is eager to shift the Overton window. “I think the current conversation on non-binary is getting a bit caught up in how we want to be described, which is important,” they say. “But I think that where the cisgender TERF feminists are getting a bit muddled up is if they listen to us, listen to how visibly gender-nonconforming people experience violence from men and the state, it’s all linked to how women experience violence from men and the state.”
At a time when literacy around trans people and the tangible everyday problems they face – two in five trans people have experienced a hate crime – is in a woeful place, you almost might expect Alabanza to treat their reader with kid gloves. But anyone expecting a hand-holding guidebook will be disappointed by the candour, complexity and subjectivity of None of the Above. There’s no memoir like it published in the UK; Alabanza writes of their coming of age as a Black working class gender-nonconforming person straight from the shoulder.
“People think that transness is this identity you pick up at university or this intellectual pursuit, and that’s not my experience,” they say. “I don’t have a university degree. I’m from a council estate in Bristol… [people like me] also are trans, and it was really important for me, as trans UK literature grows, that I inject that narrative in there.”
Transphobia has been background noise to Alabanza’s life for a long time, but they’re quite visibly over it. The day before we meet, the writer Julie Bindel tweets a screenshot of a 2018 PinkNews article with the headline, “the heatwave is dangerous for gender non-conforming people”, and an accompanying photo of Alabanza. “On my LIFE this is not a parody,” she wrote. Like clockwork, Alabanza began to receive “weird messages” but after years of this obsessive attention, they’re unfazed. “I’m in a bit of a ‘f*** it’ mood, as shown by seeing the Bindel thing and just quote-tweeting it and setting it straight,” they say. You could almost feel the eye-roll in Alabanza’s reply: “It seems Julie you’ve picked an article/headline that I didn’t even write from 2018.”
“I don’t care as much anymore,” they say of the exchange. “They can’t scare me anymore.”
Alabanza has worked hard to get to where they are and the journey to None of the Above has been arduous. They dedicate an entire chapter to one significant ordeal in their past. In November 2017, a week before their 22nd birthday, Alabanza was rejected from a Topshop women’s changing room on the grounds of making other customers “uncomfortable”. Their tweet about it generated an unprecedented amount of media attention – most notably, Janice Turner’s The Times article titled “Children sacrificed to appease trans lobby” – and Alabanza writes of the particular toll Turner’s article took on them. “It did define a lot of the next years,” Alabanza says. “I declined every single press opportunity to speak back for myself at the time. So, it feels really good to have done that here, and hopefully that means I never have to ever do it again.” Alabanza comes to terms with this period of their life by examining Turner’s precise wording, eventually editing the headline to read, “All of us sacrificed to appease the gender binary.” “It was very therapeutic to change the headline that I have had etched in my brain,” they say. “It feels good, and I think that as long as legal did their job, I’ll be alright.”
Next January, Alabanza will premiere a new play – Sound of the Underground – at the Royal Court Theatre. “God, I’m so excited to be back in theatre,” Alabanza says with a hoot. “I’m so excited to go back to something I’m comfortable with – publishing was so out of my comfort zone.” The show will feature “a whole cast of iconic London underground cabaret performers, partly because I felt like during the pandemic they were ignored from financing and funding.” Sound of the Underground, Alabanza explains, will see the cast “hijack the Royal Court to put on their own play called The Murdering of RuPaul but they realise they might need to stop performing the play because they might need a union.” It’s a play about the commodification of drag and the effect the global Drag Race empire has had on local performers. “What I learned within the first two minutes of working with this cast is this will only be 50 per cent of how it goes, and they will decide what they want to do every night.” So, it’s partially scripted? “No, it’s fully scripted, they just don’t care about the script,” they deadpan.
Alabanza’s memoir offers welcome nuance to those willing to listen but trans people still face systemic hostility. Over 20,000 people attended London Trans+ Pride in July yet media conversations about trans people are often overwhelmed with misinformation and there remain years-long wait lists for gender-affirming surgery. Is there any obvious political recourse? “I think about this a lot,” Alabanza says. “I partly moved back to Bristol from London because I think we have to go back to our local communities, and we have to work past party lines.” Since returning to their hometown they’ve become more immersed in community action: “I’m not asking people at the food bank who they voted for, I just need to be at the food bank, and I think that’s what’s motivating me at the moment.” So, is party politics a complete turn-off? “I mean, I’m obviously going to vote when it comes but I’ve lost all investment because I’m so distrustful of all of them. Look at the Tory leadership campaigns, they’re all just for show. It’s just boring, I’m bored of it.” Alabanza pauses then, with a laugh: “what a positive note to end on.” They stub out their cigarette and we leave the square, the San Pellegrino bottle swinging in hand. At 26 they’ve clearly got so much more to give and, quite frankly, we’re all the better for it.
‘None of the Above’ is published by Canongate