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  • Carola Kolbeck

Az Franco - Fighting Transphobia with Education and Tireless Activism

© Photography by Az Franco

Silence and inaction are not on Az's agenda. With unyielding energy and drive to educate people, he stands up for transgender people and members of the LGBTQIA+ community.

I meet with Az after he’s had a frantic morning in London, finished off with cancelled trains and delayed transport. You would never know, though: Az is full of smiles, good energy, and vibes that could calm the chaos in the world.

At 25 years young, Az already has got a list of achievements behind him that rivals that of others’ lifetime goals. He’s writing for platforms with millions of readers, speaks on communities with a monthly reach of over 150 million people, and features in a Lipton Ice Tea advert in continental Europe.

Instead of sitting back and enjoying his success, Az continues to work and fight every day. A fierce advocate and spokesperson for the global trans community, he knows there is far too much work to be done. Be it through his social media channels, his art, or his involvement with organisations and charities - silence and inaction are not on his agenda.

Incredibly grateful for his time and unyielding energy, Injection spoke to Az about his personal journey, the struggles of trans lives in modern society, and his hopes and plans for the future. You’re very open on your social media and in your activism for trans lives. Were you ever scared of opening up and speaking about your personal experience?

It was definitely scary, to begin with. In the beginning, it wasn't really my intention to be public about my transition. I kind of started my platform as a way of keeping track of things for myself, and it was a very private, very small, and close community of just maybe 10 people. My confidence started to grow, and I found a lot of hope and confidence from watching other people’s experiences and hearing about other people’s journeys with their gender identities. So, I think a combination of that and being in a place where I was starting to become more comfortable with myself led me to become more public about it. Of course, there was definitely a lot of fear that the wrong people would see what I was up to, but I think that’s not something that you can really escape when you're so public. There are definitely people who don't like what I'm doing and don't like what I stand for, but I think that I've gotten better at being able to keep other people’s opinions outside of my boundaries so that they don't affect me. Obviously, it's easier said than done, but I think that this helps me to move past the fear aspect of it.

You’ve spoken a lot about your struggles with connecting to your own body. Most people struggle, have struggled, or will struggle with their bodies for various reasons. Does the lack of empathy from society for transgender people, therefore, surprise you?

I guess there’s a common rhetoric taught to us, or especially has been, in generations leading up to now, that we have to love ourselves and accept ourselves for who we are, despite our flaws or in spite of the things that we don't like. I think that it can be misconstrued within the trans community that trans people are in some way escaping the things about themselves that they don't like in quite an easy way because they're taking another route that means they don't have to face those things.

Whereas obviously, in reality, being transgender isn't like that at all, and so I think that those kinds of ideas hold a lot of people back from understanding gender dysphoria. I think that people are able to understand it more in terms of dysmorphia and in terms of other more accessible mental health issues, but I think when it comes to dysphoria, there are still a lot of unknown things, and there's still a lot of debate as to whether it even exists, and so I think that this clouds the whole aspect and makes it difficult for some people to understand.

I think that what it ultimately comes down to is a lack of understanding and lack of education. Hopefully, with time more and more people from the younger generations will start to come forward, and things will change.

Amid both internal and external pressures and prejudice, how do you protect yourself from harmful comments? How do you stay motivated?

It's harder to switch off when people get personal, and in times like that, I'll often just turn off my social media, take myself away for a bit, try and just forget about it all, or at least work through it. Sometimes I only feel empathy for people who have such strong and angry views that invite so much hatred.

It’s not always easy to be self-motivated, especially when faced with adversity and when things aren’t going the way that we want them to. Those are the times when I have to really talk to myself about the reasons why I'm doing this and the importance of me helping other people to make positive changes. It’s to try and help people.

You share your first feelings of euphoria with your followers. Those moments where you took steps to make changes to be your true self. What gave you the push to make those changes, and what stopped you previously?

It was support that enabled me to make those changes. It was having friends around me who supported me in my decisions and affirmed who I was, having people who respected and helped me along that path and enabled me to take the next steps. Before, it was a lack of support and fear of how I’d be received that held me back.

© Photography by Az Franco

US president Joe Biden recently spoke out, saying that “it is wrong to block children’s access to sex change surgeries or puberty blockers.” Here in the UK, when you go to the NHS website, there’s a long list of requirements and services that need to be met. What changes would you propose to the NHS service for transgender people? And how accessible do you think these services are?

I think that there are a lot of changes that need to be made. The key one is education, and another one is listening to the community. One of the big issues with the restrictions and the wait lists, ridiculously long wait times, and the endless paperwork that needs to be done is that it's realistically not possible for 90% of people to deal with all of that. If they were paying attention to the mental health rates and to LGBTQ+ children as well, then they would understand how detrimental those kinds of requirements can be.

I'm not qualified to be able to outline the specific steps that need to happen, but I know that more education needs to happen, obviously in the general population but specifically and urgently in healthcare settings. There also needs to be more funding in place for especially LGBTQ+ children, and regulations and requirements need to be reviewed - taking into consideration the transgender community; because mental health research has confirmed the importance of gender-affirming care.

I feel very fortunate that I have been able to get access, but a lot of people have an even harder time, especially in places in the world where obviously it's not legal at all to be able to get the treatment, the medications, the therapy or the hormone replacements that you need. There’s a lot more work that needs to be done in the NHS but also in private healthcare settings and all across the world.

In one of your posts, you openly talk about your complex post-traumatic stress disorder. “I lost a lot of who I was, trying to satisfy unreasonable expectations” is one of the captions from some archive photos. What were some of those expectations?

I guess the most obvious one to me was gender expectations, and I think that we're all, or at least most of us, raised with gender expectations and with lessons taught of how to behave in certain ways, how we talk, and what makes us a valid person in terms of our gender and in terms of ourselves.

A lot of those things took a toll on me, especially because from a young age, I didn't understand my gender identity, and so having these expectations put on me that didn't feel comfortable but I didn't understand - it very much left me trying to fulfil what society wanted from me and trying to achieve those things but it wasn't making me very happy.

Being raised as a female means there are a lot of expectations put on you in terms of how to be and how to behave and how loud to be or how emotional you're allowed to be, and I think all of those things held me back as well. I think most women feel there's a disparity between the way boys and men are raised and how they're allowed to communicate, and I think unlearning a lot of those expectations was definitely challenging.

We're not just going to wake up one day and have all these things unlearned and changed; it's all about that conscious effort. We all need to be doing a bit more of that. It's just questioning those things and questioning the importance of that rule or that “Why did we decide that this has to be done in this way?”

The undoing of centuries of reinforcing stereotypes appears like a never-ending story. What, in your opinion, is the biggest roadblock to a society where the word “normal” doesn’t exist?

I think that as humans, or as at least in the western world, we've lost the sense of what life actually means. I think there are a lot of links between capitalism and the way that we all experience everyday life in the western world. There’s a refusal to change our ways and a lot of ignorance and harmful stereotypes, and microaggressions.

We’re all facing a lot of uncertainties and mental health issues at the moment, and on top of that, capitalism is demanding every ounce of what we have! I think people generally are feeling like they don't have the energy to grow more. People are in a place where they need to be prioritising themselves. Life is about community, it's about sharing, and it's about having family and friends and supporting each other, but I think that the climate we're living in is preventing people from being able to support each other because they have so many things going on in their own lives.

On top of that, I think there are a lot of people who don't want to change because they see changes as negative. I think it’s a combination of things. By becoming a community beyond government and capitalism, there would be more appreciation, love, and respect for each other. It's hard to be able to prioritise other people's needs when we're all going through a hard time, so I think that that's something that is also holding us back.

Fear of difference appears to be a huge reason for continuing oppression and exclusivity of the trans community. What, in your opinion, are those people scared of?

I think, especially older generations are scared that what they believed for their whole lives is a lie. I think they're scared that there could have been another way of doing things that may have brought more happiness, more authenticity, and more joy to their lives, which they didn't get to experience.

I think there’s also fear of change. A lot of people get comfortable with things, and they don't want things to change, but also they don't feel the need for change, and so often the LGBTQ+ community gets put into this bracket along with environmental activists and feminists as people who are change-makers, and it’s not necessarily the best bracket.

Gender is a complex thing, and a lot of people struggle to understand it. They've lived with this truth and this rigid idea of what gender is for such a long time that changing that would feel like it could really impact their lives. A lot of people are more hesitant because of fear of what accepting trans people might do. They’re afraid of the consequences of what they might look like if they’re seen to be supporting a trans person or what could happen to them, as opposed to the reality, which they are unwilling to find out.

What achievement from your tireless activism so far are you most proud of?

I designed a t-shirt with Philadelphia Print Works for Trans Day of Visibility this year, and up to 60% of the proceeds went to PFlag, which is one of the largest LGBTQ+ organisations in the world. That was really fulfilling for two reasons: One, because I got to design a t-shirt and I got to see people wearing it and two, because we got to raise proceeds for the charity. That was a real highlight for me and the kind of work I really enjoy doing.

Speaking with Freeda was another highlight. I spoke with them twice, actually. Once I took part in their ‘Freeda and me’ series - it was called ‘Being transgender and me’ and it was about my experience so far as a transgender person. I also spoke to them about coming out; and what it was like. That was really enjoyable.

I think that the most fun stuff has been things where I’ve been able to be my most authentic self and get that out into the world and for people to enjoy!

© Photography by Az Franco

Are there any developments, policies, and people who give you hope for the future, and why?

I think the younger generations give me hope because there are lots of very open-minded, very forward-thinking young people coming onto the activist and creator scenes, but also young people who are taking it upon themselves to educate their friends and are calling out any harassment or marginalisation. They’re just taking it upon themselves to be allies, and they will hopefully have an easier time understanding their own identities as well.

I think the media is becoming more trans-inclusive and more accurate with its depictions of LGBTQ+ people, specifically in TV and movies. I think that’s really important because as the general population gets 99% of their education from the media, it really needs to be a correct and positive representation. I think that when more people are seeing transgender people in the media and those characters are correctly depicted, then more learning is able to take place, and more understanding and empathy will grow as a result.

I guess the world is a very difficult place for us all right now, and I think that by coming together, trying to support each other, and trying to make small changes to positively impact our lives and the people around us and their lives, we can all find a better way of living in a happier community.

We all can try and encourage ourselves and the people around us to take small steps in the right direction. Whether that's following an Instagram page or reading an article or listening to a new band, maybe an LGBTQ+ artist who is talking about something in a more accessible way or listening to a podcast, watching a film that's specifically got an LGBTQ+ cast - you can do things in whatever way is accessible to you.

I think that there are lots of small things that we all could do to just try and learn a little bit more and to be better people.

It’s exactly this vulnerability that gives Az his strength. It also makes him a role model for everyone in society, as everyone can learn something from his incredible humility and honesty, which he tirelessly displays whilst trying to make the world a better place. The world and humanity need Az Franco. He probably hasn’t noticed yet that we need him more than he needs us.


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