Fighting Transphobia, One Manicure at a Time

September 23, 2015 | Yahoo Beauty

British trans activist Charlie Craggs has been devoting the past two years to giving free manicures around England — but she has never gotten a professional manicure herself. “I’m too embarrassed,” Craggs tells Yahoo Beauty. “I’m worried that the manicurist will judge my big hands. I want to wait until I’ve transitioned more.” The 23-year-old runs Nail Transphobia, a campaign that tackles transphobia through pop-up nail salons where strangers can get their nails done for free by a trans person. The project, conceived by Craggs while she was a 21-year-old undergraduate studying Creative Direction at the London College of Fashion, was actually never intended to come to fruition. “This was a project I had to conceptualize for school, but it required too much funding for me to think it could happen,” she says. “The role of the creative director is important — how do you sell something and make it known?” Craggs wanted to re-imagine traditional trans activism using creative direction.

The act of giving and getting manicures is an intimate process interweaving physical vulnerability and commercialized exchange — an unusual act of touching between strangers. “What do you really know about the person doing your nails?” Craggs asks. “What if they’re trans? They’re just people like yourself.” Once, a five-year-old getting her nails done announced that her teddy bear was also transgender. Most of the time, however, the conversations at the table are admittedly mundane — the grey English weather, Beyoncé, school, and work. “I want to build empathy. Sometimes people ask me about being trans,” Craggs says. “But most of the time, it’s enough for them to touch me and see that I’m a real person like them.”

Craggs is confident in her own skin and role as activist and educator now, but that wasn’t always the case. “I was always made fun of in school for being gay,” she says. “I had a really hard time at first. I was a really shy child but then I became strong and vocal. Activism came first to me, before the creative projects.” She grew up in a working class town with supportive parents, and while she didn’t have many male friends, she credits her many girlfriends for “saving her life.” Craggs began dressing in drag in London, exploring hair and makeup and nails and the transitioning process. “I didn’t have any friends who were drag queens. I started going to learn more since I’ve always been super feminine, but I didn’t know anyone,” she says. She also credits the online trans community for providing indispensable information and support, especially since she didn’t have any trans friends. “Most of us start our transitions online,” she says. “The internet is where we find out who we really are.”

In 2013, Nail Transphobia finally launched — with only one week’s notice — when Craggs was approached by assistant curator Matthew Storey at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum after she gave a talk about her work, briefly mentioning the idea of the campaign. “He came up to me and I had no idea he was one of the curators,” Craggs said. “He invited me to do it at the V&A the following week.” She put her university education to use, developing social media, building the website, designing the nails, ordering supplies — and coming up with the name. The pop-up was a big hit, and the following week, the Science Museum across the street from the V&A asked her to do a pop-up there. In the past two years, Nail Transphobia has given free manicures at the Royal Academy of Arts, Somerset House, The Feminist Library, and other major cultural institutions in the United Kingdom.

So far, in spite of the press traction that Nail Transphobia has received, the funding is still low and Craggs is looking for sponsorship from a nail brand. She’s only just recently started receiving payment for her services. Consequently, Craggs is usually the only one at these events, though she has a steady team of fellow trans activists helping out whenever budget and space permits.

As for the nail designs used, they are actually decals — a white background with the Nail Transphobia emblem — to spread awareness about the project, but Craggs also likes using Wah Nails, Sally Hansen, and Revlon: “I’m a working class girl — I like drugstore brands.”