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Portrait: Daniella on being a trans woman in Tower Hamlets

Daniella Stuart, Stepney resident of 30 years, came out as a trans woman in 2017 when she was 49. The journey to grow into Daniella hasn’t been easy; she has dealt with some alarming abuse from strangers, estrangement from friends and family, and a confusing upheaval of emotions.

But Daniella is marked by her ability to hold her head up high in the face of everything. She expresses her inner anxieties through art and writing, and has cemented herself happily within the community of Tower Hamlets. Above all, Daniella is a force of positivity and pride.

Letting Daniella out

The choice to live authentically as Daniella came gradually, and she was not free of criticism. ‘There were these two guys who had their own issues, probably drunk or on drugs, and as I walked past they said I’m disgusting,’ Daniella says. ‘I decided to think about that and about how I should put that into perspective. Though there may be one person who insults me, I think of the hundreds who didn’t.’

Daniella’s complacence about street harassment is telling of her easygoing outlook. ‘I had a guy spit at me, I’d never had that before,’ she says. ‘Of course in certain areas you can feel a bit uncomfortable walking through, but I think that’s just a part of living in a big city, and that’s a part of human nature. People think “we don’t like strangers”,’ she says, putting on a gruff voice. 

It has taken 49 years for Daniella to build up the courage to be positive in herself, and her journey is visible in her wake. ‘Everything was suppressed to the point where it hurt my stomach,’ she says.

‘I had 49 years of living as Stuart with Daniella inside me.’ She remembers her past self with a faint sense of nostalgia, like she is talking about an old friend. ‘There are certain ways where Daniella and Stuart are the same person. We like the same music, we like the same films, we draw the same way, we have similar views.’

The decision to come out has been a result of years of soul-searching, watching trans YouTubers, and reading trans fiction. ‘The first day [I was out] I was sitting with friends at a barbecue. It was a birthday, and the girls wanted some marshmallows, and I was wearing a skirt. I said “I’m not changing, can someone walk with me to Tesco because I’m not walking like this on my own!”’ 

Now, Daniella appears relaxed and confident.  She sits with her stockinged legs tucked up on her leather sofa, wearing a plain black work skirt and a simple t-shirt. Her hair is a fruity auburn, pulled back into a loose ponytail, and her nails are a slightly-chipped red and white. She is a picture of ease. 

Daniella’s home of 30 years in Stepney is a haven of an artistic mind. Her walls are covered with her drawings, her photos, and intricately coloured shadings. Palettes of paints sit on sheets of her poetry and stories, and history books spill out from the bookshelves. In one corner hangs a selection of model fighter planes, a hobby she got into as a young child with her father who was in the navy. 

She has been artistic ever since beginning the soothing practice of painting model Spitfires, but since her transition her art has flowed out of her. ‘It just helps me de-stress,’ she says with a joyful smile, showing pictures she drew from when she started drawing in 2013. The freedom to be creative has moved in parallel with the freedom to be herself. 

Coming to terms with emotions

Daniella is thoughtful about the years of her transition, and ponders it with a calm rationality. ‘The hardest thing is admitting that you’ve got to change,’ she says. ‘I feared being trans, I feared what people would say to me, I feared the negative social comments of it.’ 

And she has dealt with plenty of negative social comments since the change. But Daniella is surprisingly unfazed by the external world’s disposition. For her, it’s all about how you feel inside, and how she felt inside was tumultuous until not long ago. ‘My parents both passed, and I thought I’ve dealt with [their loss] in a “man’s” way, but realised once I started transitioning I was emotionally opening up.’ 

‘It left me with a lot of emotion flying around that I had to deal with. I had to grab them out of the air and say, got to deal with this, got to deal with that. I opened Pandora’s box,’ she says, ‘then I couldn’t put Pandora back in its box!’

The box opened for Daniella around 2014. ‘I was feeling very very unhappy in myself and I went to Greece. I was in a really bad place. My friend put the Kindle app on my phone, and I started reading lots of trans stories.’ From there, the changes started rolling in.

‘I was living [as a woman] in my home full-time in January 2017, but I didn’t start going out full-time until July. That was when I saw a trans woman sitting in [The White Hart] pub wearing a dress, and I thought, what am I waiting for?’

Daniella tried on different labels, from heavy crossdresser to genderfluid to transgender. But in the end, she landed squarely on trans woman and it fit. ‘People have a lot of new labels flying around because people don’t like the old labels. I’m okay with that, but at the end of the day, the only label one needs is ‘I’m a human being’. ‘

Finding family in community

Not everyone in Daniella’s life stuck around to see her through. Whether their lack of understanding turned hostile or indifferent, she lost touch with a few people, including her brothers. She has had years now to process this. ‘You’ve got to let people go,’ she says with a survivor’s wisdom. 

But Daniella still finds herself surprised by how many people around her have been pillars of support, including ‘my very, very, very good friend Nick, who I’ve known since I was 16. He’s been totally one hundred per cent supportive. He’s more like a brother to me.’

Nick has stuck with Daniella through every change in her life, and while he is not the only one who has, she has found others through her three decades of carving out a place in Tower Hamlets’ community.

Daniella’s experiences being out and trans in London have been fraught in places, but above all, she emphasises her love of being part of a connected network of people. ‘I’ve been pleasantly surprised and proud of Tower Hamlets. I’ve been lucky, I’ve been in a community.’ 

‘Everyone’s been really good, the council’s been good about changing my name,’ she says. ‘It’s quite a muslim community, and they’ve been very supportive. I’ve had no issues with the people round here. One of them was a girl working in the Tower Hamlets post office who asked if she could do her dissertation on me!’ Her laugh pours out of her easily, rippling through the room. 

Since she came out, Daniella has been a force in the Tower Hamlets LGBT Forum, as well as other local groups. ‘For me it’s all about community,’ she says. ‘Talking to people in pubs, clubs, shops, parks… being in a community is the most important thing.’

Daniella is an avid member of the Victoria Park Cricket Club, and she also helps out the Victoria Park Bowls Club. That she now feels comfortable in these traditionally male environments is a testimony to the journey she has made.

Daniella talks warmly about her local community and feeling fully integrated within Tower Hamlets. ‘You have to build outwards – if you just build up and up with no support you’ll topple over.’ She draws a picture with her hands of a tower expanding out into a pyramid. ‘In my darkest, darkest moments, I know I’m safe here.’

For some, it might be hard to go from being called disgusting in the street to feeling radiant positivity about her area. But for Daniella, it is obvious that her comfort in community comes from within her. 

From her self-therapy through art, her bubbly sociability, and her remarkable ability to put the bad in perspective of the good, Daniella has earned her happy life after struggling with her identity for 49 years. ‘I haven’t transitioned,’ she smiles, ‘I’ve just realigned myself. I’ve built my house and now I’m just redecorating it.’

Daniella, local trans woman, laughing on her sofa
Daniella's drawings and photo of her father
Some of Daniella’s drawings, and a photo of her father
Daniella's coloured pictures on her wall
Daniella's final portrait after a workshop on trans confidence
Daniella’s final portrait after a workshop on trans confidence
Daniella and her friend Michaela on the grass at the LGBT+ Pride Picnic in Victoria Park
Daniella and her friend Michaela, an art teacher who helped teach Daniella to draw, celebrating LGBT+ Pride at 2019’s picnic in Victoria Park

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Anna Lezard

Anna Lezard is a recent graduate from the University of Amsterdam with an MA in New Media and Digital Culture. You might see her cycling around East London on a rattly pale blue Dutch-style bike or enjoying a nice pub.

One thought on “Portrait: Daniella on being a trans woman in Tower Hamlets

  • July 19, 2019 at 10:31 pm
    Permalink

    What a lovely article. Quite inspirational.

    Reply

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