Black, Transgender & Female: “Change starts with the conversations you have at your dinner table.”

by Louise Akrofi.

She has survived a violent attack from a transphobic ex-lover, bullying and threats from a co-worker, but now she has found love and is “sailing to her destination”. I caught up with Transgender Reality Personality & Influencer Surelle Stevens via Video Call.

(LA) Thank you so much Surelle for taking the time to speak with me; how is your day going?

(SS) Really well thank you, I have been volunteering today and now I am cooking as we speak! I am making Sweet Potato Fries with Chicken and Garlic Bread.

Delicious! I am very jealous.

Surelle, tell us a bit about what it was like for you growing up. What was your childhood like?

I was born in Pretoria, South Africa in 1992, so I was born free but growing up I would hear tales of the horror of Apartheid and oppression from older family members. I went to an all-white school in South Africa and from the age of 5, my family would always say to me at home that “you are as great as these other kids, even greater. Do not let the colour of your skin confuse you”. For me, my understanding of racism and equality was that I needed to empower myself. I was raised by my Grandmother for the first 11 years of my life and I would say the best gift I had in my life was experiencing love from her. She gave me a different type of love and nurturing. My Grandmother would teach us at her dinner table that everybody is equal.

How did you personally react to the death of George Floyd and the subsequent growth of the Black Lives Matter movement?

The George Floyd situation made me feel really sad; it made me question why it took the death of a Black man on camera for the Black Lives Matter movement to gain the recognition that it has. We have had so many resources up until now, in fact the internet is our biggest resource. It is not like we are in 1950 where we have to sit and wait for a newspaper article to be published by a white male to tell us what has been happening. I went to the protest in London and it moved me tears, it was inspirational. I am and forever will be pro-black. My Grandmother grew up in South Africa in the 1950s, I felt like I was protesting for her and all the other people before us who have not had a voice.

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Picture: via Instagram.com @exclusivelyss

When did you move to the UK?

When I was 11 in 2003, it was such a culture shock.  My Mum had me at a really young age so she missed out on a lot of opportunities. Luckily for her, my Grandmother sent my Mum to the UK while I was in South Africa to get a degree and start a new life. I found it so hard to adjust to life in the UK at first; as a young child this made me heavily depressed – the only thing that made me happy was going to therapy.

At what age did you start to recognise that you may be Transgender?

I started having therapy at the age of 7 in South Africa. At home my Grandmother was very open and free, she let me dress up at the weekends and play with my dolls. I remember being at school in the late 90s in South Africa and a teacher dragged me out of the girls’ toilets at school while shouting at me “you are not a girl, you cannot do that”, it caused a scene and all the girls were freaking out. That was the first time I experienced Gender Dysphoria. As a child that was so confusing for me, having to go to the boys’ toilets was traumatic for me. At that young age I became suicidal and began having extensive therapy twice a week with 2 therapists. Then I had to face the trauma and judgement at school, which left me carrying so much shame and guilt from a young age.

I know you have been through a hell of a lot. One hell of a journey. How did you get through those times and what helped you to pick yourself back up?

What motivated me was knowing that I am not a “bad” person. I knew that the cards I had dealt to me were purely going to be my experience, nothing more, nothing less. I knew I had to work out how to navigate myself through life. My experience in life is out of this world, becoming a woman, being transgender – not many people will have this experience. I had to humanise myself and almost teach people how to love me, for me. When you are young, you do not have the tools; I would lash out, I would party hard and I would allow men to abuse me because I did not have the tools. As you grow older you have to look into yourself and I knew the bad things that happened to me were not going to be the end of me. I always just trusted that everything was going to be ok and that I was going to be great, I was going to be Surelle. Surelle may not have had the tools she needed ten years ago but I never lost hope. Turning 28 has brought me so much clarity; no other birthday has brought me that. I feel like I am finally free – I always say “I am sailing to my destination”. Healing is all about practising forgiveness, and I realise that forgiveness is a very common theme in my life. I was so mad at my Mum when I was younger, I wondered how on Earth she could just up and leave me. Now that I am a grown woman, I can understand that she did what she had to do. She is in such an excellent position now, our relationship has changed and the love has shifted, you know?  I have been through so many dark and heavy things in my life, I had to forgive, I would not be here today without it. Learning to forgive yourself and others is very key.

What was it like balancing Secondary School and Gender Identity here in the UK?

From the ages of 11-14 I was very much adjusting to life in the UK; at school as I was seen as “the child from Africa with an accent”, I was seen as this weird kid. Everyone would ask me “are you gay?” “are you straight” “are you bi?” “what are you?” and I would never answer.  I just focused on my education. I was a bit of a nerd [laughs], but I felt motivated to get through my education with the knowledge that after school I would blossom, school was just a transitional step to me being 16 and being free. Growing up with my grandmother taught me independence and how to be mature. At the age of 16, in year 11, I went to school as a girl for the first time. That caused so much outrage; in my community, at school. Funnily enough my Head Teacher actually supported it, she always used to call me an angel – she said “you are different”. I taught everyone at school about being Transgender; I did the research myself, doctors, procedures etc. My Mum and therapists couldn’t help me with that; when I was doing this in the early 2000s, people were not educated about gender and I suppose I had to do my own homework because this is something that I could not go into blindly. Daily hormones, the sex change and after that, the trauma – there are so many things that go into marinating this. If you want something badly enough, you will find the power to persevere.

When would you say you fully, totally felt like Surelle?

The first time I felt like myself was at 27, last year. For 27 years my life was a lie, I told no one about the fact that I was Transgender. I was scared to make friends or date people for longer than 6 weeks. I felt like I could not trust anyone. I would berate myself, I just thought to myself  “How could I have accomplished all of this, moved to the UK, had a sex change, experienced deep trauma, near death violence from a past lover, and still be living a lie? Who am I?” Someone threatened to “out” me at work, and that is when I thought “I need to set myself free”. That day, I came home, quit my Admin job, started my YouTube page (Surelle Exclusively) and I told the world who I was. That was in September 2019, that was the first time I could sleep in my life! I stopped taking sleeping pills and anti-anxiety medication after that. Now I am living free and medication free and I feel re-born. God has given me a 3rd chance at life, to live openly as a Black Transgender Woman.

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Picture: via Instagram.com @exclusivelyss

Do you feel like the Black Lives Matter movement speaks to you, do you feel included in it?

I do not ever feel included, especially here in the UK. Transphobia is high in the UK, but it is silent. I feel as though when it came to protesting for BLM I had to forget my Trans hat at home and go and be Black that day. I feel as though I wear multiple hats. Even as woman, there is still gender based violence – the fight for equality is far from done, but we all have our part to play. I have taught my siblings from a young age what being Transgender is, and now they are so comfortable – my teenage brother teaches his friends about Transgenderism, my sister teaches her friends who come to the house and cannot believe it. Change is all about education and it starts at your dinner table. As Transgender women, people always ask us the questions as if it is us oppressing ourselves, but it is the world oppressing us.

Would you agree that the Black Community can be quite transphobic?

Yes indeed; the Black community needs to catch up when it comes to sexuality and gender. I get so many views on my YouTube channel but no follows – people cannot wrap their head around the fact that there is a Black Trans woman in the same arena as their YouTube favourites. But honey I am here to stay! This is my truth and I know it will offend some people. The fear of rejection is what made me feel I had to be silent for so long. Even the simple words “you are a man” scared me. I am healed now, whatever they say cannot hurt me. I do this for the 9 yr old Transgender girl who watches me on YouTube at home.

Would you describe it as a triple war you’re fighting?

No because overall Black people are not fighting my war for me. I can guarantee you that 90% of people at that protest would have been transphobic. One year I was attacked at Carnival after someone pointed me out in the crowd and said “there is that man”. I then had to fight off 9/10 guys around me, pushing me, provoking me, tugging me, taunting me, dragging me, that was the first time I had a vigilante experience, which started with one person “outing” me. If it wasn’t for the police that day I may not be here talking to you. I am not looking for acceptance from the Black community, I look to them for respect. I have since been back to Carnival with my head held high, with confidence; going back there healed me. If people question me I say “yes I’m Surelle and I am Transgender, nice to meet you”. Owning your identity is taking your power back.

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Picture: via Instagram.com @exclusivelyss

Who would you say are your role models in life?

My Grandmother for sure, she is my world. I always tell people that when I met my GM I met love, she is so kind. She taught me how to love myself and how to love other people. She inspires me daily. When it comes to celebrities, I would say I am influenced by a cross between controversial American TV Presenter Wendy Williams and Princess Diana; Princess Diana was put into a situation and she just had to make it happen, like me. Being Transgender was a force bigger than me. Do you think I would have accepted this life if I knew what was to come? No! I would have been so afraid. Being Transgender is more than just a rocky road Darling, it is like climbing Mt Everest with no gear!

Out of curiosity, why Wendy Williams?

Wendy Williams says it like it is, she owns her space and then she leaves. She is in her own arena, that is what I am trying to do, build my own arena so that nobody can tell me how I play my show. Nelson Mandela is also an obvious inspiration for me – Mandela did 27 years on Robben Island, I did 27 years in my mind. When you are not true to your identity, you are a prisoner of your own mental state. The words and the trauma are like little fires, you must learn to put them out.

What do you do to relax yourself?

I love food, girl! I am a foodie – I love to host. I have a lovely place with a nice garden so I love to have people over and entertain. Now that I have come out I am so much more relaxed about having people over. I could never talk to my friends about my life and my journey – my life before was a lie. Every moment that I get to educate people and have real conversations with them I do that, for me that is how I relax and unwind because then I can look back. Looking back into my life is like reading a novel. My own fairy tale, how I came to be.

What are you working on at the moment?

So I am a Presenter and I have started branching out into acting. I have just been working on an upcoming LGBTQ feature film called “Danny Boy”. I believe this film will be really good for the movement and for our community. I am also working on the 2nd season of an Amazon Prime show (Show Real London), and I am on the hunt for a good Manager for more Presenting work.

I can really see you making it big as a Presenter! I think you would be great for our generation.

Now that I am free, I want to throw myself into more hosting. I am finally happy, I am in a new relationship, I have found love. My boyfriend and I were friends for 4 years, we were reconnected after not seeing each other for a year, and there were instant fireworks. This is the first time I have been in love – when you are free God sends you things. We have a new place together, we cook together, we are so happy.

I have to say, your skin is just amazing, it is glowing through my laptop! What is your go-to skincare routine?

I only use Dove, I swear by Dove. Dove is my go-to it is the only brand that works for me, I use everything, the face cream, the wipes everything. It is awesome and keeps my skin hydrated. If I do not have to wear make-up I will not, everyone assumes that I wear glam makeup every day, but trust me I don’t – you have to let your skin breathe from time to time.

What sort of advice would you give to a younger transgender person/person struggling with their sexual identity?

Tap into your support system, whether it is friends or family. In the UK I find that people do not value family as much as they do back home in South Africa, so even if it is your friends, honey you tap into them. A conversation is therapy, this interview is therapy. Ask someone a real question not just “how was your day” or “how is the weather?!”  Do your own homework. Believe in yourself – be your own champion; show people that you ARE, you CAN and you WILL. Let your voice be heard. I have written this into the stars. I dreamed of becoming who I am now, as a child. Now I am here and I am truly happy.

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Picture: via Instagram.com @exclusivelyss

Thank you for sharing this with us Surelle, you are a true inspiration. Catch Surelle at the Trans Rights Protest in London on Saturday 4th July 2020.

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