Munroe Bergdorf on International Women’s Day: “It’s important to look at all kinds of women”
The multi-hyphenate on International Women's Day, activism, and why her days on social media are numbered...
To say that Munroe Bergdorf is a trailblazer would be an understatement. The model, presenter, author and podcaster is one of the most visible transgender people in the UK, and one of the country’s most prolific activists to boot. Bergdorf has championed LGBTQ+ rights as a patron of the charity Mermaids, she’s an advocate for UN Women UK, and last year, she was added to L’Oréal’s Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Board; mending her relationship with the cosmetics giant after they controversially dropped her from a campaign in 2017 for calling out white privilege and racism. The 34-year-old is a seasoned pro at being in the public eye — but it hasn’t come without its struggles.
“My days on social media are definitely numbered,” Bergdorf tells me matter-of-factly. “I really don’t like it, especially with what it’s doing to society and young people. It’s just eroding democracy.” In 2021, the model announced that she was leaving Twitter, deeming the platform unsafe for trans people — and minorities writ large. But one year on (she doesn’t miss Twitter “at all”), she was forced to double down on Instagram. Last month, she informed her 500k followers that right now, it is in-real-life experiences that are her priority. Posting into the abyss that is social media is most certainly not.
For Bergdorf, true activism doesn’t need a megaphone. Real change often takes place behind closed doors, and it doesn’t have to be broadcast to a clamouring audience of followers and, inevitably, trolls. “It’s such a mess but a lot of people who get into activism actually end up performing it,” she sighs. “A lot of true activists’ voices are also silenced online, so the way that we have these conversations as activists are becoming less and less radical just because of what the platform allows.”
That’s why, on International Women’s Day (IWD), Bergdorf wants to stress that if we want things to improve, we need to tackle issues with sustained effort. There’s no point speaking about how misogyny is so embedded within our structures for just one day, we need to be doing so at every opportunity.
Below, HUNGER catches up with Bergdorf about her thoughts on IWD, her hopes for the next generation of trans youth, and the future of sustainable activism…
What does IWD mean to you?
It’s as expansive as being a woman is. This is a good opportunity for us all to plug into difference and to recognise how broad the experience of being a woman can be. It’s really important to look at all kinds of women across the world and use today as an opportunity to educate and empower each other.
Unfortunately, days like IWD have historically been gatekept by cisgender women. As a trans woman, have you ever had any hesitation when it comes to celebrating today?
Definitely in the early days of my transition because you’re still finding your footing and working out how to speak about your own experience. You’re much more vulnerable in those early days. I didn’t want to take up space that wasn’t mine because I wasn’t seeing voices like mine back then. Now, I see it as an opportunity to make sure that I am educating myself on all kinds of experiences and recognising that they are all as valid as each other. Our stories are literally here to teach each other how to be better, inclusive humans.
One criticism levelled at IWD is that it’s just one day. How do we ensure that we’re committed to uplifting women year-round?
With the internet, every single day has become an opportunity to educate and to inform ourselves on the ways of the world. I do think that these holidays hold importance, but it’s essential that we don’t just have these conversations on the day. It’s so important to have conversations not just about feminism, but of real womens’ issues and how misogyny is impacting all women across the world, every single day. We’re seeing systemic misogyny crop up more and more as we’re examining institutions like the police force and work cultures, thanks to the Me Too movement… But IWD is also a great reminder for us to come together as a celebration as well, and not to just talk about the bad stuff. We need to make sure that we seize the opportunity to inform and educate each other every day.
With your kind of work, it’s necessary to be online. But last year, you quit Twitter, and it’s been over a year now. How has it been?
I don’t miss it at all. I don’t think Twitter is a safe environment for any marginalised person to be on willingly. Really, I don’t enjoy social media at all. I post every now and again, but it’s not something that I enjoy like I used to. Back then, I felt like it brought people together and sparked conversations. But now, I feel like people just want to outdo each other when we could be coming together and making progress.
The never-ending arguing on the internet is just not something that’s good for me to be exposed to also. Many of the conversations I’ve been involved in over the years have become heavily intertwined into culture wars and used by the conservative right to fearmonger and create moral panic, and with that comes a lot of abuse. It won’t be safe for marginalised people without platforms putting heavy resources into curbing troll behaviour, but we also need to look at the sociological reason why people do this. There aren’t enough conversations about that, we just talk about the fact that people troll, but we need to interrogate why these behaviours even exist in the first place. There’s clearly something very wrong with society currently.
What do you think about the role of the activist when it comes to social media?
I’ve been in these spaces for a long time and have seen activism become so heavily intertwined with social media, which is inherently problematic. These social media platforms are owned by big tech, and they’re addictive! It’s such a mess but a lot of people who get into activism actually end up performing it. A lot of true activists’ voices are also silenced online, so you can only have conversations if you abide within very strict frameworks. It’s the algorithm that decides who is and who isn’t shown. When it comes to the body positivity movement, for example, black fat women are so heavily censored that their content isn’t even searchable. Trans content is heavily censored and labelled as sensitive too. This means that the way in which we have these conversations as activists are becoming less and less radical just because of what the platform allows. We can’t allow things to start and end on social media.
Would you ever consider going totally offline?
But can you really do that careerwise?
At this point, no. But my days on social media are definitely numbered. I really don’t like what it’s doing to society and young people. I don’t like how it’s eroding democracy, how misinformation and propaganda are so easily accessible, and how it’s enabling people to become radicalised. I feel like I’m in a bit of an abusive relationship with it, to be honest. That’s why I try to live in the real world as much as I can. There’s no point appearing happy in the metaverse if you’re having a breakdown in real life.
A lot of your work also has to do with absorbing bad news. How do you cope with all that?
It wears you down and it imprints on your wellbeing. I know that I’m not one person in this — I’m not the messiah of the trans community, no one is. For a long time, I’ve been the person at the front of the UK trans community and I’ve ended up getting a lot of the expectations, the abuse, as well as the opportunities. It’s really taken a toll to the point where I just can’t be absorbing bad news all the time. It’s really important to recognise your role within activism; you may not be the spokesperson but you can still do stuff behind the scenes.
Trans people in the UK are still a marginalised, persecuted minority. What do you want for the next generation of trans youth?
I feel like my generation and the ones before me have had to break down so many doors just to be seen, and now the cat is well and truly out of the bag. People know that we exist, so visibility is no longer enough. I want young trans people to focus on what they want to do in the world — what are their hopes and dreams? It’s easy to say that you shouldn’t let your identity hinder your dreams, but exercise self-belief. You’ve got enough people against you, it’s really important to be on your own side.
So your book, Transitional, is coming out soon — can you tell me more about it?
It’s part social commentary, part memoir. It’s a deep dive into my life using significant cultural moments to show that in one way or another we all transition. It’s not something that’s uniquely transgender, we all transition in how we understand ourselves. Being transgender is just a heightened sense of aligning the physical with the mental. I think that trans people understand themselves 10 times more than cisgender people because we’ve had to interrogate ourselves so much, and because of the fact that we live in a world that invalidates how we see ourselves.
What’s next for you in 2022?
In terms of my activism, I’m going to be a lot more community-focused and will be getting involved in initiatives and grassroots organisations. I think that’s where the real change will occur. It’s great that trans people are being brought into the fold in terms of representation but that’s not the be-all and end-all. Being a trans person on the cover of a magazine is a starting point, and if people take it too literally, it can almost overshadow the real change that needs to occur. I’m so thankful for all the opportunities I’ve had, but alongside that, we need to make sure we’re having conversations about where we’re actually at.