“When you become the image of your own imagination, it’s the most powerful thing you could ever do.” RuPaul
Trans people have existed since recorded time. From trans priests of the Sumerian goddess Inanna in 5000 BC to the Hijira, or third sex, of present-day South Asia, LGBTQ+ identities have been acknowledged by societies as diverse as 19th-century Siberia and modern-day Turtle Island (an indigenous name for the US), which celebrates historical trans identities under the name ‘two-spirits’.
And until the recent trans panic, they existed in sports. In the 1930s, Elvira de Bruyn was the undisputed queen of women’s cycling, only to re-emerge towards the end of the decade as Willy. Willy, who spent his early life tormented by his sense of otherness. Who feverishly researched the ancient pansexual gods in a quest to recognise his own true self.
Currently, only three elite athletes are known to have transitioned. Caitlyn Jenner, Olympic gold medal decathlete, Sandra Forgues, gold medallist at the Atlanta Games in C2 canoe - and Philippa York.
“I took control of that straight away. Because I looked at that, and I thought, when I come back into public life, people are going to ask me this. How am I going to deal with it? And what makes the most sense to me? And then what makes the most sense to everybody else? So I apply the rule of ‘Could I have done it as Philippa’?”
If she’d been a doctor or an architect, she could simply have had her qualifications changed, York says. “But ride in the Tour de France? It doesn’t make any sense. Being in the men’s field at the World Championships? No. So all the physical things that I couldn't do as Philippa stay the same because if you suddenly start putting Philippa in there, in amongst the Bernards and the Thomases and all the rest of it, it's silly.”
In Gender Trouble, the feminist philosopher Judith Butler writes, “If there is something right in Beauvoir's claim that one is not born, but rather becomes a woman, it follows that woman itself is a term in process, a becoming, a constructing that cannot rightfully be said to originate or to end.” And names are a powerful part of the process, both a compass and an anchor. If Robert Millar was forever anchored to the world of the pro peloton, York needed a name that signposted her to a new becoming.
So how did she become Philippa? So the first rule was “I wasn't going to have the first name of anybody that I knew, right? Anybody that I've come across in my life, just so that it didn't look like I'd be stalking them. Or attracted to them, or jealous. A name totally disassociated with anyone in my life.” I mention that I felt a strange sense of pride when Susie Izzard adopted her new name. But, as York is quick to point out, you could imagine that there are other Susies and Suzys and Suzes that might feel insulted.
York says the naming process is different for everybody. She decided she wouldn’t keep a feminised version of her own name because she wanted to disappear from online searches. She took the decision with her partner, asking herself the question, “What do you want your name to say about you?”
“We didn't want a common name. And I also referenced what were typical names, popular names given when I was born and that were right for the year,” York says. Her name needed to be appropriate to her age and situation, and it had to be shortened to a version that sounded okay and couldn’t be traced by snooping newspapers. “And it had to be something I could say properly,” she adds, “without stumbling over it.” One thing she didn’t consider, she remembers, was the question of spelling. In her case, it’s one L and two Ps. “So total change just happened, It wasn't a great plan. And as it turns out, it suits the circumstances, it sounds refined, not posh and suits the scenario.” There are, she says, at least two other Pippas at the horsey events that are now a part of her life.
York is frank about the uncertain and often toxic geography that she currently has to navigate. “I’m a trans person. But it’s not my identity, it’s my medical history. If you’ve had your tonsils out, you don’t identify as a person without tonsils. We don’t define people by their medical history.” But she’s well aware that the landscape for the trans community looks increasingly bleak, with threats to reframe the Equality Act in a way that would make it easier to exclude trans women from the single-sex spaces they’ve used unproblematically for years.
“So we’ve gone from being barely tolerated to actual rejection from our politicians. For a while, when I came back to public life, there was some acceptance. But now it’s gone down the path to intolerance. Don’t play our games. Stay away from our kids.”
She quotes a shocking statistic on transphobia in the workplace - that one in three employers would be unlikely to hire a trans person.
“I say to the media, one in three people will not employ me. And they look at me. And I say, ‘If you don't believe me, just Google it.’ And they Google it, and they go, ‘Wow.’ Because they don't believe what you say. You’re always a bad-faith actor.”
It is, she says, like straight men finding her sexually attractive as a female then claiming they feel duped, that it’s somehow her fault. “So it's one of those really strange things, you know, when you transition, that you have to get used to somebody finding you sexually attractive?” York adds. “But that's never been my orientation. So I find that quite strange. And I know other trans women find it quite strange if it's not their orientation. And apparently, that's our fault. So when somebody's aggressive to you, that’s our fault. And that's when you get violence. Because it's your fault for making them feel like they're gay or whatever.”
Like the best names, Philippa York is a superhero cloak with the power of dividing then from now: “It gives you an understanding that I was that person before. And this is the person I am now. And that’s how I deal with it. The Robert part was before, and I did competitions and all the rest of it. And now I'm not that person anymore. This is how I live, and if you want to insult me and all the rest of it, that says more about you than it does about me, right? But all the other stuff, all the historical stuff, it belongs to the first version. And now, as I say, I'm the update.”
2.0. The new, improved version? I ask.
“The improved version, hopefully,” she replies with a smile.