'We Show People What It Is to Be Free.' Munroe Bergdorf Is Using Her Platform to Celebrate Black Trans Lives

Munroe Bergdorf is using her platform to speak out against racism, transphobia and their intersection—against a backdrop of institutionalized transphobia in Britain

Munroe Bergdorf meets me in the foyer of her apartment building in London, her mini Yorkshire terrier yanking her toward me as a Chinese Crested named Nelson cowers behind her legs. I’m there with my overexcitable Maltipoo puppy, who assumes everyone wants to kiss him. Nelson’s having none of it. “Nelson’s the same as me,” Bergdorf says. “He’s quite scared of others—he really keeps his guard up.”

It’s a surprising remark from a public figure so open with the most personal aspects of her life. Bergdorf, a Black transgender activist and model, comes across online as eminently self-assured—whether she’s calling out racism and transphobia on social media or writing articles about inclusion for Black and brown gender-nonconforming people in the beauty industry. She summarizes her campaign to counter the transphobia that threatens her very existence as a two-pronged strategy of “empathy and education.” But, as she tells me on a socially distanced dog walk in early September, this work has come at a price. “I’ve seen a side to the world most people never would, and I can’t unsee it,” she says.

For a gender-nonconforming person of color like me, Bergdorf, 33, has always been something of an icon. We last saw each other five years ago, when she performed a DJ set for my drag night in East London. She catapulted onto an even bigger stage in 2017, after she was hired as the first transgender model to star in a campaign for L’Oréal. But hope that the beauty industry was finally heeding calls to diversify evaporated when she was fired within a week, after the brand deemed a strongly worded condemnation of white supremacy she posted to social media—following the murder of a counterprotester at a Charlottesville, Va., Unite the Right rally—inconsistent with its “values.” Fast-forward to this summer, and she was again at odds with the beauty brand after pointing to the hypocrisy of its display of racial solidarity in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. Following a public apology from L’Oréal, she joined its U.K. Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Board. It’s a reconciliation befitting her belief that people—and, yes, brands—should have the opportunity to change. “I have faith that everybody can grow,” she says.

Bergdorf is using her blossoming platform—more than half a million Instagram followers, articles for Dazed and British Vogue, TV appearances—to educate her country and the world about racism, transphobia and their intersection, speaking in forceful and accessible terms even on platforms where she has faced hostility. And she’s doing all this against the backdrop of institutionalized transphobia in Britain. Although transgender people reportedly make up less than 1% of the population, national newspapers regularly publish op-eds arguing that they pose an existential threat to cisgender people. British author J.K. Rowling recently made international headlines after tweets, a blog post and the plot of her latest novel all propagated dangerous mistruths about transgender people. Meanwhile, in the U.S., the National Center for Transgender Equality reports that more trans people may have been murdered in the first seven months of 2020 than in all of 2019. The majority of the victims were Black and Latina trans women.

For many, though, it’s a hopeful moment too, one in which 15,000 supporters rallied on the streets of Brooklyn in a March for Black Trans Lives in June, with thousands more marching later that month in London. Bergdorf has long been outspoken—but now her fire is met by a moment that may just be ready for the change she’s demanding. “I want to keep fighting for a world that values Black trans people like everybody else, not as something controversial,” she says.

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Ronan Mckenzie for TIMEMunroe Bergdorf

Bergdorf’s commitment to making the world a safer place for Black trans people is rooted in her own experiences. Growing up in a small town in Essex outside London, she stood out. “I felt quite isolated,” she says, coming of age in an area she describes as “extremely white, conservative.” Those attitudes had been codified into law during Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s rule; an amendment called Section 28, which wasn’t fully overturned until 2003, prohibited local authorities from teaching about homosexuality as acceptable—by extension instigating a moral panic about anyone who did not conform to the straight, cisgender norm. “I couldn’t talk about the fact that I was being bullied and locked in cupboards,” Bergdorf says. The work she does now makes her the role model she wished she had as a young person. “It means that if someone else is going through that, they can look at me and see someone that’s come through it.”

She began her career in fashion PR and, after gaining the attention of fashion photographers at London nightclubs, moved into modeling in 2011. For many queer people, clubs can be a kind of expressive sanctuary, and they were for Bergdorf. In 2015, she helped found the joyous London club night for LGBTQI people of color, Pxssy Palace. A campaign for the Japanese clothing brand Uniqlo that same year marked a turning point in the blending of her modeling and activism: “To see a Black queer trans woman on a billboard, I mean, I had never seen that in my life,” she recalls of seeing herself in the ads. They also afforded her the chance to describe, for the first time on a public stage, the experience of living in her body, after years of feeling as if she was getting opportunities only so a company could tick a box.

Not long after, however, the incident that would amplify her voice and reaffirm her commitment to activism would also bring trauma and scrutiny. After a white supremacist killed Heather Heyer when he drove his car into a Charlottesville crowd in August 2017, Bergdorf channeled her pain into a Facebook post. “Come see me when you realize that racism isn’t learned, it’s inherited and … passed down through privilege,” she wrote. “Once white people begin to admit that their race is the most violent and oppressive force of nature on Earth … then we can talk.”

Within days, L’Oréal dropped her, and she faced an onslaught of criticism from the notoriously hostile British press. “It was the worst time of my life,” she says. “Every time I turned on my phone, I got death threats, rape threats.” Despite the backlash, Bergdorf wasn’t saying anything new. Like many before her, she was pointing out that white people benefit from systemic racism by virtue of living in a society that privileges whiteness. So why the controversy? Tears spring to her eyes as she relives the ordeal: “People just thought, How dare she? A Black trans woman …how dare she?” She closes her eyes, steadying herself. “Lorde basically said the exact same thing after Charlottesville.” Was she, too, dragged through the mud? Bergdorf doesn’t blink. “Of course not.”

But Bergdorf did not retreat from speaking her truth. “Activism is psychology!” she says, putting down her coffee with a flourish at the canine-friendly pub we’ve settled into. “It’s about changing mindsets. That’s what I’m trying to do.” The mission can be exhausting. “I work seven days a week. There are no breaks,” she says. As the tattoo on her arm declares, Bergdorf says she will stop at nothing to “protect trans kids,” and she is a proud patron of Mermaids, a U.K. charity that supports transgender and gender-variant young people and their families. In 2019, she was also named an advocate for U.N. Women U.K., fighting to stop systemic violence against all women and girls, including a campaign to end female genital mutilation by 2030.

But even as hearts and minds change—and they are changing—policies don’t always keep up. Take, for instance, ongoing efforts in the U.K. to make it easier for transgender people to legally change their gender. Despite the fact that a majority of consulted citizens said they supported the reforms, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party has reneged on its promises to implement the public’s recommendations.

The setbacks are not just relentless—they are personal. But two kinds of feedback keep Bergdorf going: “When I get messages from young people, telling me that seeing my work has helped them come out and accept who they are, or when people say I have genuinely changed their minds—that makes it all worth it.”

This faith that people can change their minds explains Bergdorf’s nuanced position on cancel culture—the practice of demanding, often on social media, that a person or a brand lose their cultural currency or platform following a controversial statement or action—even when it comes to her former employer. In the wake of Black Lives Matter protests this summer, L’Oréal—like many corporations—was quick to herald its “commitment” to racial equality, adapting its famous slogan to “Speaking out is worth it.” Bergdorf wasted no time calling out what she saw as hypocrisy. “I had to fend for myself being torn apart by the world’s press because YOU didn’t want to talk about racism,” she wrote on Instagram. “Where was my support when I spoke out? Where was my apology?”

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SOPA Images Limited/Alamy Bergdorf joins thousands of women taking part in the Global Women’s March in London in January 2019.

After speaking with Bergdorf, the global brand president of L’Oréal Paris, Delphine Viguier-Hovasse, who took over the company last year, apologized for how L’Oréal handled the episode, saying, “We support Munroe’s fight against systemic racism and as a company we are committed to work to dismantle such systems.” They invited her to help advise the brand on diversity and, with her guidance, donated to U.K. Black Pride and Mermaids. “We all get things wrong,” Bergdorf explains. “But people are human, and I like to recognize that.” She adds that saying no to L’Oréal’s invitation would have made her a “hypocrite.” “My whole thing is holding people accountable but also having a conversation, not just shaming people into submission.”

Bergdorf’s upcoming book is all about embracing change. Following a heated 11-way bidding war, Bloomsbury acquired Transitional for a six-figure deal. Set for release next year, the “manifesto” draws on personal experience and expert theory to explore how the notion of transitioning is a constant. In it, Bergdorf asserts that people are always transitioning, whether ideologically, spiritually, in our relationships or in our identities. “What was once controversial is now readily accepted,” Bergdorf says, referring to her comments from a few years ago. “It just fills me with so much joy now to see that we are all talking about what I was talking about three years ago.”

I remark that it must be hard, your own existence being labeled controversial. She takes a sip of her coffee and composes herself. “I’ve been exhausted for the past three years. I’ve been completely demonized, but all I’m trying to do is change the narrative so that the world is kinder to marginalized people.”

This version of Bergdorf, her guard down and the filtered lens of Instagram cast aside, offers a glimpse into the human cost of being a Black trans activist in the unrelenting public sphere. I’m filled with enormous gratitude—not only as someone who has suffered the pain of marginalization myself, but as a human being, thankful that she puts herself on the firing line to make the world more tolerant for us all. She smiles, betraying at least a hint of triumph. “Trans people offer the world so much,” she says. “We show people what it is to be free.” —With reporting by Madeline Roache/London

Amrou Al-Kadhi is a drag performer, screenwriter for shows including Apple’s Little America, and is the author of Life as a Unicorn: A Journey from Shame to Pride, and Everything in Between. Follow them on Twitter/Instagram @glamrou

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