Jordan Gray interview: 'I'm more useful as a woman than as a man'

Jordan Gray tours the UK from September 6
Jordan Gray tours the UK from September 6 - Rii Schroer

The person I expected Jordan Gray to be, having watched her on stage, and – sensationally – on television, is nothing like the person who shows up in the bar downstairs at the Groucho Club in Soho, after gamely posing in a boudoir for our photographer.

In real life, Gray, 34, is quietly spoken, thoughtful, almost demure in her black sleeveless jumpsuit. I had anticipated a capering impishness, delivered with the ­swaggering Essex accent and rococo phrasing that have invited comparisons to Russell Brand. And perhaps a touch of confrontation, too.

In a few minutes last October, the musical comedian became one of the most talked-about and divisive figures in the public eye. At the climax of her mock-triumphalist song Better Than You, a knowingly and outrageously over-the-top hymn to self-confidence performed for a one-off revival of Friday Night Live, to mark Channel 4’s 40th anniversary, the trans female comedian bared all (flaunting breasts and male ­member). Many people are still grappling with a brave new world of requested pronouns – what to say, what to think and what to ­challenge; and then Gray went the full monty on live television.

It proved just too much for some. Ofcom was deluged with ­complaints (1,538 in total) about Gray’s performance, in which – after stripping off – she played the keyboard with the aforementioned male member (as if cartoonishly hammering home the idea that a woman can have a penis). Host Ben Elton joked, “Now that is what I call a knob gag.”

Gray admits more context wouldn’t have gone amiss. “My set usually ends with the explanation that it’s quite a difficult thing to be transgender. So, without that, it perhaps came across as an explosion of ego. ­Singing ‘I’m better than you’ is ­supposed to be ironic – the day ­people believe me, it stops being funny. So at least 1,500 people thought I was being serious. I thought the nudity would level things out and everyone would go, ‘They can’t be the villain in this, look how vulnerable they are’, but in fact it was misconstrued as an act of aggression.”

The channel stood by Gray, all the same, and some of the positive responses move her to this day. She received “a message from one ­parent thanking me – saying their child had been self-harming and that, having seen me on TV, they now didn’t want to hurt themselves anymore. That was really emotional.”

Even so, “graphic threats” were made after the Channel 4 furore, Gray says, resulting in tight ­security for her West End performance a week later. She was the first transgender act to headline at the London Palladium – a far cry from the shipping container in which she had wowed the Edinburgh Fringe that August, garnering rave reviews (including five stars from the Telegraph) for her show, Is It a Bird?, and a nomination for the Edinburgh Comedy Award. It wasn’t as if she was a total unknown prior to that. As a singer-songwriter going by the name of Tall Dark Friend she had produced a ­succession of albums. But although she was a contestant on The Voice in 2016, that entailed singing others’ songs. This big breakthrough was on her own creative terms.

Is It a Bird? – which, as its Superman-referencing title suggests, has fun linking superhero tropes to Gray’s novel form of Essex “bird” – is going on tour. Audiences from Southend (where she lives, with her wife, Heli) to Leeds will encounter a figure of theatrical irrepressibility whose material never settles into a groove, in a show that moves from bursts of Tim Minchin-like song at the keyboard to freewheeling improvised repartee with the crowd. Thoughts that could, in the hands of an earnest identitarian, become finger-wagging, are instead treated with a gossipy frivolity. A riff about dog-lovers having no problem with “neutering” their pets but recoiling from trans people starts with the line “I would trade my transgender rights for animal rights any day of the week”, then moves into ­surreal speculation – “If I woke up as a dog, my life would be amazing” – before regressing into a bit about Hitler’s suspect fondness for his dog (“It’s still alright to take the piss out of Hitler!”).

Television offers have flooded in. “I think I’ve met every UK broadcaster,” she tells me. “The goodwill that ­surrounded the show has not died down.” Simon Pegg and Nick Frost’s production company Stolen Picture is developing Gray’s Transaction – quirky vignettes of the life of a trans supermarket shelf-stacker (played by Gray, with  Frost as her boss), which first aired as a Comedy Central web series in 2020 – into a fully fledged sitcom for ITV. A Radio 4 project about her music career is in the works, and the National Theatre has approached her to mull a Shakespeare-related idea. Next year she’ll perform in New York. “My life has changed,” she says.

Gray was born in Thurrock, Essex, in 1989, the oldest of three. Her father was a steel factory director (and Elvis impersonator), her mother a pub landlady (and prior to that, a hairdresser and bouncer).

Her parents divorced when Gray was eight; her mother came out not long after as a lesbian. It wasn’t until she was 23, though, that Gray, who has described her youthful self as a “red-blooded male”, set out on the path to become a trans woman. Working on a ranch in Sweden, chopping wood, she experienced the mental equivalent of Munch’s painting The Scream, she says – “a feeling that everything was weird; and things weren’t working out.”

That ­complex journey, which eventually involved regular doses of oestrogen and surgical procedures (some of which were captured on the 2018 ITV documentary Transformation Street), has turned everything on its head. “To be crude about it, it was as if I had been wearing a condom over my whole body my entire life – with every interaction there was a slight film to it. Nothing got through. I’m ­happier as a woman. I feel I’m more useful as a woman than I am as a man. Now I can say what I’m thinking – which turns out to be not much!” She laughs.

To me, it’s Gray’s levity and self-irony that make her so appealing. On stage she has intimidating ­levels of musicianship and star presence. But the ­underlying sentiment is simple: to bring joy into people’s lives. “My job is to keep being a silly clown and in doing that I really do feel like I want to save or change the world. I think one reason many people are responding so well to me is that I’m making jokes about Batman, dogs and babies while there’s a fire burning. I’m committed to that silliness.”

The debate around trans identity remains intense, but Gray talks a lot of restorative sense – both on stage (“You cannot change your sex!”) and in person: “Gender is performative, sex is not – it’s written in our DNA. Sex and gender used to mean the same thing. They have split, but that is not agreed by everyone. There’s a movement towards ‘gender’ being expression and ‘sex’ being biological – so the word ‘woman’ exists in both camps, and that doesn’t make sense logically. The prefix ‘trans’ helps but for some people that’s uncomfortable because they just want to be a woman.” Gray is comfortable with either term. “Maybe in 100 years that won’t be so important, but for now it’s a distinction I’m happy to carry. Trans-woman means a move from the gender you were. I wish our language served us better. If I was being reductive I’d say I’m a ‘sex: man, gender: woman’. I realise that’s not a phrase you hear in real life, but it would make things much easier.”

But even if we all make the ­conceptual leap, there are still ­pragmatic problems, aren’t there? Without wading too far into deep water, I ask Gray about concerns around public toilets, prisons, and the like. Possibly to the scepticism of many, Gray takes the view that such problems have been over-stated. “A predatory male won’t see a sign that says ‘women’ on a toilet as a barrier. If there was any real ­semblance of a [trans] threat I would take it seriously, but there simply isn’t one. I want everyone to be happy and safe – and they are, from me and my people. With prison, it should be case by case. Telling ­people to calm down is stupid, but I don’t think there’s a threat.”

Gray talks a lot about the “slippery slope fallacy”, which is “when you project what might happen if men are allowed to identify as women – the idea that because of that, in the future, paedophiles will be allowed to marry their dogs, and so on”.

“Transgender people are ­laughing at a lot of what is said, and reported, whether it’s ‘chestfeeding’ or ‘bonus hole’ as a reference to vagina. Some of it probably started as a joke,” she continues. “It’s a shame that both sides think the other is being maniacal.” Gray abhors threats – or acts – of violence by trans activists. “It’s an awful thing to do. Some people are mad. Most of us aren’t. It’s convenient to pick out the maddest ones. I don’t see those examples as representing me, though others will.” All sides, she thinks, should be dialling down the rhetoric. “It works both ways. There aren’t 72 genders, and no one is going to be identifying as a ­penguin. But also, [trans people] are not facing the Holocaust – it’s ­offensive to hear language like that.”

An hour of chatting can’t hope to tease out every complexity. For instance, she describes herself as lesbian, although she says she’s “married to someone who finds my configuration appealing”, which raises questions about same-sex attraction. “I’m lucky in that my mum’s a lesbian and if she says it’s alright I will defer to someone who has lived the lesbian experience longer than I have,” she says simply.

Nevertheless, I can see how tough it could be for Gray, not only keeping on top of a burgeoning career but contending with 50 shades of trans questions, personal and impersonal, friendly and potentially invasive, from all sides. “There have been times when I’ve felt ‘This is going to be the reality for the rest of my life – just a wall of fire’. But I believe that it’s best to stay the course, work hard, and just make sure you’re a good person. Do all that, and the bad stuff should eventually fizzle out.”


Jordan Gray’s Is It a Bird? tours the UK from Sept 6 (jordangraylive.co.uk)

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