Safe and seen: finding trans joy on the catwalk and camera

Katie is happier in front of the camera than she has ever been. But she, like so many others, had to suffer deep gender dysphoria to reach trans joy.
A conference room of people sat around tables, listening to a woman speak. She stands by a screen that reads “My long walk to womanhood”.

Written by Marie-Anne Leonard

Writer & Editor – Canon VIEW

“You have to strike a pose for the photographers and then turn and strike a pose for the audience. I decided to do the model thing of not smiling as I was walking, just keep neutral… but I’m a big smiler. So, I decided that when I struck my pose, I’d come out in a big smile.”

When Katie Neeves walked the runway at London Fashion Week last year it was nerve-wracking, but by this point she was used to all eyes being on her. Since 2017, Katie has been on camera countless times, speaking her truth on TV and online, as well as in front of huge audiences. Her name regularly appears in lists of inspirational people, and she recently won ‘Hero of the Year’ at the Burberry British Diversity Awards. She’s even had her portrait painted. And, yes, she is a big smiler. Because she is an incredibly happy woman.

Before Katie Neeves was born in 2017, she was named Martin. “I talk about Martin in the third person. I'm grateful to Martin for stepping back and allowing me to be Katie,” she says. “I'm quite unusual in the transgender world that I am comfortable showing my old photos and people knowing my old name. I make no secret of it and I'm completely comfortable with my past. He'll always have a special place in my heart and I'm proud of everything I achieved as Martin and who I was as Martin. But I'm not Martin anymore.”

On the ‘about section’ of Katie’s website, Martin is there. And when she delivers trans awareness training at schools, colleges and to companies, she will often show photos of Martin. But she knows this is a very personal choice and that many transgender and non-binary individuals find photographs and footage of their pre-transition selves impossible to look at, let alone share. Gender dysphoria (the distress felt when a person’s assigned gender at birth does not align with their gender identity) is a recognised medical condition and one that can be deeply traumatising. In most cases, it takes a long time for a person to gain access to the kind of support, care and treatments they require to become the gender they should have always been. And this delay alone can contribute to levels of emotional suffering, depression and anxiety that can, and does, stop life in its tracks. Certainly, when Katie’s gender dysphoria reached its peak, it was paralysing. “At the age of 48, my gender dysphoria increased dramatically and went through the roof,” she recalls. “I was in complete turmoil, it was horrendous, it took over my life completely. My business suffered; I couldn't do any work. I couldn't do anything. Every waking moment, every sleeping moment. My whole life. I couldn't think of anything else.”

A woman in a red dress sits on a high stool and speaks to a group of people in a bright white room.

Katie now regularly delivers Trans Awareness training to schools, colleges and organisations.

A man in a flight suit and sunglasses stands in front of a small yellow light aircraft.

Katie is happy to talk about Martin in her training sessions and feels comfortable sharing photos of him.

This is a painful reality for transgender and non-binary people: seeing the wrong version of themselves, day after day, year after year – sometimes from a very early age. It’s understandable, then, that they might not ever want to have their photos taken and wish to erase any already in existence. These photos would be, as Katie feels, not really photos of themselves. “Throughout most of my life, my level of gender dysphoria was low enough that I was satisfied by my occasional cross dressing” she explains. “It certainly wasn't as strong as some who need to transition from an earlier age.” In this respect, the photos taken during the period of life where Katie lived as Martin do not cause her undue anguish. In fact, many of them hold precious memories that she cherishes.

For others, however, they are a torment and especially so when the transition journey begins, as they represent a painful past life, exacerbate dysphoria and crucially, may ‘out’ them to people who are unaware of their trans identity – and this includes transphobes. “No one chooses to be trans. It invariably involves a lot of pain and heartache, as well as dealing with prejudice and bigotry,” says Katie. So, for many trans people the goal is to ‘pass’, that is, to be perceived by others as their gender, not that assigned at birth. For these people, ‘passing’ is a place of validation, gender euphoria and, sadly, safety. It is simply the case that having photo documentation of their past can present a risk.

But there are many, like Katie, who want transgender and non-binary people to live in an accepting and safe society, and this can only be achieved through education, showing the world who they are and what it means to be trans, non-binary – or both – proudly. In her trans awareness workshops, interviews and socials, Katie is very open about where she is on her journey, in terms of gender-affirming procedures and treatments, as well as speaking candidly about how her body has changed over five years of transitioning. And despite her acceptance of Martin, she freely admits to still having a complex relationship with her body as it changes. “I've had breast augmentation surgery, but I haven't had lower surgery yet. And so, while I can look at myself down there, I prefer not to.” The hormone blockers that she takes have essentially rendered her “non-functional”, and while this is a big part of the conversations she has when delivering awareness training (“I don’t think I’ve ever met a less sexual bunch than pre-op trans women!”) it also a source of incredible frustration, as it is a non-topic for her but feels all-encompassing for everyone else.

On the right, a picture of Katie Neeves in a floral dress, posing for the camera. On the left a quote that reads: “I'm a parent, I'm a daughter. I'm a sister, I'm a photographer. I'm a musician. I'm a dancer. I'm a pilot. I am lots of things and they’re all part of me. I just happen to be trans.”

Her frank and refreshing honesty extends to even going so far as to record a YouTube video immediately after her breast augmentation surgery, still in her hospital gown and woozy from anaesthesia. This critical milestone in her gender journey achieved, Katie now faces a long wait for lower surgery, but is pleased that in the interim she doesn’t feel the need for any other gender-affirming procedures. “I'm very lucky in that I've always had a heart shaped face, so I don't feel the need for any facial feminization surgery,” she explains. “Whereas a lot of my other trans women friends do so because they have more of a square jaw.”

However, she is far from alone in her openness and it only takes a quick search on Instagram and TikTok to discover a huge movement of transgender and non-binary people who are using the platforms to proudly document their transitioning faces and bodies. In the main, they are in their twenties and using social media to normalise the trans and non-binary experience. On TikTok, there are an astonishing 2.1 billion views of videos tagged #TopSurgery, for example. And on Instagram, the same hashtag has nearly 270,000 associated posts. Because of Instagram’s policy around female nudity, they are almost all showing trans men and non-binary individuals smiling broadly and proudly showing off their bare, post-surgery chests. If the smiles weren’t evidence enough of their post-op happiness, many are also hashtagged #transjoy and #gendereuphoria. It’s difficult surgery and often hard to come by, as most gender-affirming procedures are, so there are also plenty of people sharing their transition on socials as a means to crowdfund their transition. This is something Katie understand all too well, having spent a great deal of money on her own transition so far. But she has zero regrets.

Today, whether on the catwalk, delivering training or on stage tipsily giving an acceptance speech (“I didn't think I was going to get it and there was a lot of wine on the table!”), Katie is the very picture self-confidence. She cheerfully poses for the camera with her head held high. “I'm still the same person on the inside, but just far happier. There's no inner conflict anymore,” she says. That said, becoming the woman she was always meant to be drove her desire to break down the misconceptions and stereotypes around the trans and non-binary experience. As a result, her organisation Cool2BTrans has changed Katie’s world. “I just want people to know that it’s okay to be trans. Trans people are just ordinary people who want to be happy.

“I'm a boringly ordinary person,” she laughs. “It's just that I've just had an extraordinary journey to be happy."

Learn more about Katie and her work as a Trans Ambassador on her website, Cool2BTrans.

Read more articles like this from Canon VIEW