Seated amongst politicians Stella Creasy and Sophie Walker, artist Gillian Wearing, Gal-dem magazine founder Liv Little, blogger Dina Torkia and writer Reni Eddo-Lodge for a spread in British Vogue’s February issue is Paris Lees (third from left). By appearing in the editorial – which complements an article, entitled, “Meet the New Suffragettes,” which celebrates 100 years since women in Britain gained the right to vote – the young journalist and activist, made history. She is the first openly transgender women to be featured on the pages of the 102-year old London-based publication.
Before Lees was recognized by the British arm of the most storied fashion publication in the world for fighting to empower women in the battle for equality, Lees was born male, in Hucknall, Nottinghamshire, a former mining town about an hour North of London, where she lived in public housing with her single mother.
Reflecting on her early school years, Lees, who i-D has described as “spunky and out-spoken,” told Reuters that it was very uncommon to “see trans people in the media and only then as objects of pity, ridicule or disgust.” Such portrayals of transgender individuals by the mainstream media, compounded by a general lack of awareness some 15 or so years ago amongst the general population and the cruelty of young bullies, meant that Lees was “hounded by [kids at school] who kicked, punched and spat at her.”
“People at school told me I'd never be a girl, would never be pretty enough, would never be accepted,” she said reflecting on the ground-breaking Vogue editorial, which was photographed by Julia Hetta and created under the watch of the magazine’s relatively new editor-in-chief Edward Enninful.
Following a descent into sex work and an 8-month jail stint, Lees returned to college to finish her A Level courses (the completion of which is required in order to attend university), and ultimately moved to Brighton to study English. It was also then that she started her new life as a woman.
In the time since, Lees has been writing about LGBT topics for publications ranging from Gay Times and Vice to the Guardian, Independent and Telegraph, as well as the META, a digital magazine for trans people that she founded, with the goal of working – through her words and other activist efforts – “to make sex work safer, end violence against women, and raise awareness about mental health and inequality,” she says.
“We are in the middle of a global movement where trans people are asking to be treated with the same respect as everyone else in society,” according to Lees. "We've still got a long way to go before we reach equality and it's important we fight for all women.”