It’s 10'o'clock on a Tuesday morning, and we’re in Heaven. London’s best-known gay club has had a pandemic glow-up; the worn floorboards are now covered with plastic sheeting and tables, rather than pounding feet. Behind the empty stage, adverts flash for nights out with contestants from the most recent series of Ru Paul’s Drag Race UK. The speakers though, are fired up: a playlist steeped in Noughties nostalgia pours out, heavy bass and twisting synth of Jamiroquai, Mr Oizo and Kelis.
This was the soundtrack to which Paris Lees wrote her first book, What It Feels Like For A Girl. The music has transported us back two decades, to an era of Foot-and-Mouth headlines, crop tops and Nokia 3310s: ‘Twenty Zero One’, as the scene is set on its first page.
Lees’s debut is ostensibly a memoir, but it reads like a novel. Much of it takes place in the nightclubs of the East Midlands – Palais da Danse, NG1, AD2 – and Lees kept a similarly nocturnal schedule while writing it – “after midnight”, she tells me between shoots. We’re here to capture something of the vision that she poured into the book: a desire to “lovingly recreate 2001,” when, she tells me, she “felt like an outsider. Writing it, she says “was like going back and reclaiming it, and saying: ‘I was there, I was taking notes.’”
In 2001, Byron Lees is 13. They are smart, bullied, confused and wildly frustrated about their lot: a latch-key kid, living between the homes of their abusive father Gaz and their grandmother Mammar Joe, who “looked after me when me mam went to live in Turkey”. It’s through Byron – through their rapid, adolescent vernacular – that we are placed in Hucknall, a market town in Nottinghamshire. It’s through Byron that we realise why they want to leave; we watch their attempts to do so through drugs, dancefloors, friendship and sex.
Byron is a compelling, adorable, sometimes infuriating narrator. Over the next six or so years, we see them falling in love, falling prey to abusers, falling in with the wrong crowd and falling into prison. Their story, intoxicatingly captured in What It Feels Like For a Girl, is as heart-breaking as it is fun; a rare insight into working class, queer adolescence told from a knife's edge.
Lees says she thinks of Byron as a “character” now, but their life – and the events that happened to them - was what she experienced growing up. “I'm talking about a really intense, difficult six-year period of my life. And it's been a really intense, difficult seven-year period of my life revisiting it and going through it again,” she tells me. “So I had my first puberty, which was the wrong puberty for me. Then I had my second puberty, which is my female puberty, and then I've sort of gone back to the first puberty again,” Lees laughs. “So I've sort of been in constant puberty for the past 20 years.”
Lees is arguably the most prominent trans writer in the country. She graduated from Brighton University and forged a career in journalism, doing work experience stints at Gay Times and writing for national newspapers before becoming the first trans columnist at Vogue, the first openly trans person to appear on Question Time and present shows on BBC Radio One and Channel 4. But it becomes rapidly apparent while reading What It Feels Like For a Girl that Byron’s gender identity is one of the least intriguing things about their life. As Lees puts it, “this person is essentially a fucked-up kid, a rent boy, you know?”
Originally, What It Feels Like For a Girl didn’t include any references to gender or her transitioning journey. “I absolutely did not want to write a transgender memoir,” she says. “I know that to people who aren't trans that's one of the most interesting bits about it. But for me it wasn't.” Still, she says, she realised not to include Byron’s desire to, as Lees writes in the book, “wanna be a girl” was “ridiculous, because you are avoiding something that was relevant.”
She wanted What It Feels Like for a Girl to be “an antidote to all of this fucking boring, middle-class discussion about identity,” she tells me with increasing passion. “I still don’t know why I’m the way I am today, all I know is that I am a fact in and of myself. I exist. Byron existed. We’re a social fact. And we don’t traditionally have a voice. I think we should hear from them more.” In writing the book, she was able to give Byron, who spent so much time being told they were worthless, the space to speak for themselves.
To do so, Lees wrote her book in the dialect she grew up speaking – that of working class Hucknall. She read Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting while writing, which is written in the slang and vernacular heard on Edinburgh’s council estates, but admits that fewer readers are as familiar with the Nottingham vernacular. It was difficult, she says, to strike that balance of making Byron’s story authentic but not confusing for unfamiliar readers. For reassurance, Lees ran the manuscript past actress Vicky McClure, who also grew up working class in Nottingham. “What It Feels Like For a Girl is like Alan Sillitoe on acid,” McClure tells me, over email. “The visuals! The music! The chapter names! It’s got to be a film. I’ve never seen anything like it – I can’t shut up about it.”
McClure’s right: the result is writing that is deeply immersive. Lees not only conveys the sound of her hometown but what it was to be a teenager there. The contrast of the experiences Byron is going through with their evident youth makes for reading that is both wrenching and hilarious. The breathless romanticism with which they recall losing their virginity is undercut by a reference to The Never Ending Story. All at once, you realise how vulnerable Byron is, how what Lees is depicting isn’t love – as her character thinks – but statutory rape.
Byron is painted so vividly on the page – their language, their outfits, their innocence and loss of it – that it’s easy to believe Lees when she says she started to think of them as “almost a separate person” who exists outside of who she is today, someone who has gone through a class transition as much as a gender one. The process of revisiting the trauma of her youth has been, she says, “incredibly painful”.
“Don’t we all have a younger version of ourselves that we look back on and sort of make our peace with?” Lees poses. “I do feel very, very, very protective of that person. It’s allowed me to forgive myself in a sense, and just accept the fact that things weren’t the way I wanted them to be. I really, desperately wish that they could have been different, but this book, as it stands at the moment, is the best chance of me having the sort of life that I want to lead and a life that isn't pitiable. And it happened because I took that trauma and turned it into something that really connected with people and actually moved them and made them feel something,” she tells me. “Maybe it will have been worth it.”
Later, the singular strings of Britney Spears’ Toxic fill the air – so do gentle clouds from the smoke machine. The stage is lit in purple and red, ready for Lees. She dances as a camera clicks, crawls along the empty floor; her long blonde hair tucked away beneath a short, dark wig. The hair stylist takes footage for Instagram, a make-up artist leans in with a brush. I think of Byron’s aspirations, written all through What It Feels Like For a Girl. Their desire to move to London, their determination to prove the bullies and the transphobes wrong. They’d be amazed to see how it all turned out.
What did you think of this article? Email firstname.lastname@example.org and let us know.
Image: Stuart Simpson / Penguin