Serena Corral Alvarez shares what pride means to her. Photography by Emil Lombardo © Social Streets CIC
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Celebrating Pride amidst adversity: the resilience of trans and non-binary residents in Tower Hamlets

As Pride Month comes to an end, we find ourselves reflecting not just on the jubilant celebrations, but also on the deeper, more poignant aspects of what it means to be part of the LGBTQIA+ community today. 

This year, Pride holds even greater significance as trans and non-binary individuals face an increasingly hostile political environment in the UK. Recent remarks by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, attacking trans women and proposing to reform the Equality Act to define “sex” as biological sex, along with widespread misinformation and bias have made the struggle for equality more visible and urgent than ever.

In Tower Hamlets trans and non-binary residents navigate these challenges daily. From the ongoing debate about banning conversion therapy for trans people to the rising transphobic rhetoric in mainstream media, the fight for recognition and rights continues. Despite these adversities, hope and resilience shine through the experiences of those we interviewed. 

Four trans individuals from Tower Hamlets shared their stories, highlighting the struggles and the supportive aspects of their local community. Their narratives reveal a complex interplay of fear, resilience, and a steadfast commitment to visibility and advocacy.

Anima Jones (they/them), 28, is a homeless outreach worker living in Bethnal Green. Originally from Liverpool, they moved to the area just before the pandemic.

Anima Jones, a homeless outreach worker living in Bethnal Green.
Anima Jones is originally from Liverpool, but moved to the East End just before the pandemic. Photography by Emil Lombardo © Social Streets CIC

Shir Cohen (she/they), 33, is an artist from Israel who moved to the UK to pursue a degree in arts at the Royal College of Art. She lives near Bow Church and has her artist studio in the same area. She has been there for four years.

Shir Cohen, an artist from Israel who moved to the UK to pursue art.
Shir Cohen is an artist from Israel who moved to the UK to pursue art. Photography by Emil Lombardo © Social Streets CIC

Isabelle Bale (she/her), 40, is a musician and strategist living in Stepney Green. She has been there for about two years. She mentioned not having a specific hometown as she moved around a lot as a kid, with Kent being the last place she lived in the UK outside of London.

Isabelle Bale, a musician and strategist living in Stepney Green.
Isabelle Bale, a musician and strategist living in Stepney Green. Photography by Emil Lombardo © Social Streets CIC

Serena Corral Alvarez (she/her), 30, is a hair and makeup artist living in the Mile End area. Originally from Barcelona, Spain, she moved to London just before the pandemic and has enjoyed living in the same area since.

Serena Corral Alvarez is a hair and makeup artist living in Mile End.
Serena Corral Alvarez is a hair and makeup artist living in Mile End. Photography by Emil Lombardo © Social Streets CIC

Here are their thoughts on the importance of their local community and what Pride means to them in these challenging times:

What importance does the local community hold for you, especially during challenging times?

Isabelle Bale: ‘It’s really important that we can feel safe in our local community, and that’s certainly how I feel around here. I travel a lot for work and always have to check out local trans laws, attitudes, and protections to ensure my own safety. More recently, this has been far more important inside the UK than abroad, but it always feels wonderful to come back home to a place where— and I mean this in an absolutely positive way— no one cares. We’re all just getting along with our lives together. Live and let live.’

Isabelle Bale, a musician and strategist living in Stepney Green.
Isabelle Bale has lived in the East End for two years. Photography by Emil Lombardo © Social Streets CIC

Serena Corral Alvarez: ‘The most important part is feeling that I’m understood, respected, and supported. Knowing more than feeling that if I leave my house with my makeup and my skirt, I’m not going to be called out. Yes, people will stare… but I do stare at people who wear amazing outfits. Nobody makes me feel like I don’t belong. So for me, it is the most important thing, and it is something that I deeply value, that I’ve found in this country.’

Shir Cohen: ‘I think the community I engage with more here is the artist community. We haven’t done an open studio in a while. And I think the best way to support trans people is to make people know trans people. A lot of the people in the studios here are queer and trans people, so it would be great to connect more with the community.’

What improvements would you like to see in how the local community supports its trans residents?

Anima Jones: ‘I think we don’t go often to queer spaces in the area because there is a lack of spaces. The only one we go to is Working Men’s Club. But I also feel this is a gay world problem, not just a Tower Hamlets issue.’

Shir Cohen, an artist from Israel who moved to the UK to pursue art.
Shir Cohen has an artist studio near Bow Church. Photography by Emil Lombardo © Social Streets CIC

Isabelle Bale: ‘Local NHS trust agreements in place for shared care with private gender-affirming care providers and local MPs standing up to defend trans rights – especially when both the Conservatives and Labour have said they will implement the incredibly transphobic findings of the Cass Review. Apsana Begum and Rushanara Ali – we need more than social media posts; we need you to fight for our rights with your parliamentary voting record and influence on policy!’

Serena Corral Alvarez: “It would be fantastic if everyone could get informed about what being trans is. Maybe if local shops could have flyers or pamphlets, like frequently asked questions. Just being able to have open, honest conversations about what being trans is would be fantastic.’

What does Pride Month symbolise for you personally?

Serena Corral Alvarez: ‘For me, Pride symbolises owning the trauma of a generation and reclaiming it as a safe space for everyone who has been judged and criticised by this heteronormative patriarchal society. I understand that it is a moment of celebration, but I always like to enforce that it is a protest, and it is a moment of reflection. We still have people who say, ‘Why don’t we have straight pride?’ Well, we all know the answer: because you haven’t been killed or persecuted for being straight, your rights haven’t been revoked for being straight.’

Serena Corral Alvarez, a hair and makeup artist living in Mile End.
Originally from Barcelona, Spain, Serena Corral Alvarez moved to London just before the pandemic. Photography by Emil Lombardo © Social Streets CIC

Isabelle Bale: ‘It’s a celebration of community, a time to remember our LGBTQIA+ history and culture, and a time to celebrate being visibly part of something bigger than yourself. However, it’s also a protest—something often forgotten in the more corporate-sanitised version we see these days. It’s especially important in 2024 to not see the battle for LGBTQIA+ rights as one that has been won, nor a battle that sits in isolation from other groups fighting for their rights locally and across the world.’

Shir Cohen: ‘I think we need more solidarity between the struggles, and you can see that in all the awful people who want to separate LGB issues from trans issues, which is silly because it is inseparable. For instance, I took a really long time to square my gender identity, and I don’t even know if I’m there yet. But the only reason I was able to do it is thanks to the work of people before me, especially trans women, who I think are at the head of the community.’

Why do you think it’s essential to celebrate Pride this year, especially during these challenging political times?

Anima Jones: ‘With all the things going on, the failure to ban conversion therapy for trans people, and the media’s portrayal, we could feel so isolated and depressed. The good thing about pride, especially Trans Pride, is that it is a way to connect with the community and see them. I remember last year, I was literally sobbing, but I told myself, ‘I just gonna go, I just need to go,’ and I was overwhelmed by this feeling, realising that it is just more than me; it is not just me facing these issues.’

Anima Jones, a homeless outreach worker living in Bethnal Green.
Anima Jones, a homeless outreach worker living in Bethnal Green. Photography by Emil Lombardo © Social Streets CIC

Isabelle Bale: ‘Trans rights are under attack systematically through government policy and the media. As a result, transphobic hate crimes are skyrocketing. Our access to healthcare is being removed, both major parties include transphobic statements in their manifestos. Add to that the rise of the far right across Europe and authoritarian regimes openly attacking LGBTQIA+ people. Pride in 2024 is more important than ever—we need to show that we exist, we are proud to be ourselves, and most importantly, we are NOT backing down.’

Serena Corral Alvarez: ‘I think we should invade the polls! I think we should wear the most colourful and queer garments, and all go to vote and make a statement. Pride is about making our voices heard, and what better way to make our voice heard than by voting!’

If you enjoyed this article, read How Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club has become the UK’s favourite queer venue

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