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Eddie Izzard “I'm not the poster child for trans people – I refuse to be!”

Eddie Izzard speaks to Now Then about being trans, her "tenacious bastard attitude" and her plan to become MP for Sheffield Central.

Eddie with Labour activists Anna L Winko centre right event host Matt Killeya R and unidentified supporter

Eddie with Labour activists Anna L Winko centre right event host Matt Killeya R and unidentified supporter

Nigel Jones

When someone has headlined shows across the globe, won Emmys and performed in films with the likes of Judi Dench, Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise, seeing them onstage at Crookes Social Club is as surreal as you would imagine.

But while she could doubtless have filled Sheffield Arena, Eddie Izzard was in the rather more intimate S10 venue to raise money for Sheffield Foodbank Network and Fulwood Labour Party at the end of September.

Speaking to Eddie before her two-hour 'audience with' event, I asked why she'd chosen Sheffield Central for her bid to become a member of parliament.

Eddie Izzard on stage at Crookes Social Club

Eddie Izzard on stage at Crookes Social Club

Philippa Willitts

“Sheffield kind of chose me as much as I chose Sheffield”, she says, talking of when she moved north to begin a degree in Accounting and Financial Management with Mathematics – a course that appealed to both her aptitude for numbers and her amusement at its ridiculously long name. She tells me she loved the city and the people (“witty and generous”) but following her calling as a performer meant she ended her studies after only a year.

Her first ever show was in the lower ground floor of the Arts Tower. “So I’ve got all this early history in Sheffield. Sheffield’s kind of supported me and said, ‘Yeah, you're alright. You can stick around.’ And I thought, well, it'd be nice for me to support Sheffield as Sheffield supported me. So I wasn't born and bred, I haven't been here all the time, but I've been out and I've explored.”

So why politics?

"I'd like to take all this energy I have, of having a vision of the future, and bring it to Sheffield. Because I think Sheffield needs to keep punching its way up – Leeds is doing what Leeds is doing, Manchester is way ahead, Liverpool is out there, and Sheffield? We need to be a metropolitan city. We’re made of steel, the people are made of steel, and I want to keep helping Sheffield."

Izzard is undoubtedly impressive. She’s performed in 45 countries, does stand-up in four languages, and has run 130 marathons for charity. But will her fame hurt or help her bid to be Labour's candidate for Sheffield Central? She thinks “probably both,” but points out that the work she's done has been purposeful, not frivolous.

"I think I've tried to use my fame in a good way, running 130 marathons for charity. That's not dialling it in.

"That's a kid who creatively started here in Sheffield launching a one-woman Great Expectations, playing 21 of the 28 characters, off Broadway. That's not too shabby, you know?

"So hopefully when they look at the fame they go, ‘Well yeah, you have fame but you haven't used it… You could just be shooting up and being an arsehole.’"

While Eddie’s fame gained her many fans, she also has her detractors – especially those who ideologically oppose trans rights.

I ask if the influx of toxicity around her trans identity is upsetting, and she insists it's not. When I press her, she says that years of stand-up taught her to deal with hecklers, and that she uses the same approach with critics who focus on her trans identity.

She does, however, seem exasperated that being trans is something she is forced to repeatedly defend.

Audience view of Eddie and event host Matt Killeya of Fulwood Branch LP

Audience view of Eddie and event host Matt Killeya of Fulwood Branch LP

Nigel Jones

"Some people have a problem with trans, but I exist – I'm true, I'm real. I'm being honest about my genetics, or whatever it is inside me. And that is a true thing. I came out back in 1985. So I exist, and I’m not trying to get in anyone's way but I’m trying to create a little bit of space for myself.

“If someone wants to say, ‘You are wholly wrong for existing’, that’s not right. I think women have been through hell... women have had a lot of hell done to them, but it wasn’t done by trans women – it wasn’t done by trans people. We’re just trying to exist, trying to express ourselves."

There's always the risk that the conversation about Eddie being trans will distract from the issues she's trying to talk about. I ask her whether she's concerned about this disruption to her political message.

"No, because I'm not the poster child for trans people – I refuse to be! I don't have all the answers so I'm not going to pretend I do. I went to an LGBTQ gala in Salt Lake City a few weeks ago. There was an ex-Mormon who realised they were gay and came out, a great activist called Troy. He said, ‘I feel the arguments that we're going through on trans now are similar to the arguments about gay and lesbian people 20 years ago.’

“I think we have to go through this phase because when I came out, these conversations, this acrimony was not happening – but no conversation was happening. Even the acrimony is better than no conversation, because at least people are talking."

We move on to the policies Eddie wants to advocate for if she gets elected. In a city where demand for foodbanks is reportedly higher than any other area of the country, she'll have a significant challenge ahead of her if she becomes one of its MPs.

I ask about the cost of living crisis and what action she would take if she had political power.

"A windfall tax is the way forward, and the idea that it's going to annoy business, well, we cannot be afraid to annoy business. If people in our country are on their knees, and if people in other countries are on their knees, the big oil and gas companies need to get on their knees – or at least get on their haunches.

The audience at Crookes Social Club seeing Eddie Izzard

The audience at Crookes Social Club seeing Eddie Izzard

Philippa Willitts

"They need to stop saying, oh, it's for our shareholders. The shareholders need to push back on it! There needs to be some sense of humanity. You can actually do things in a different way. Have the guts to have a heart."

She tells me she wants to expand her fight beyond Sheffield too.

"Everyone deserves the right to have a fair chance at life: a free life and a fair chance. We want that for the people of the world, of Europe, of the UK and for Sheffield and Sheffield Central. That's the only way forward.”

As we conclude our chat and Eddie prepares to go onstage, we return to the issue of transphobia. She tells me she’s been warned that somebody is planning to come to the event “to shout at me”. Nobody did this – though there has since been outrage that she used the ladies' loos – meaning the weirdest heckle of the night came when Eddie was talking about the death of her mother and an audience member shouted out, "How old were you when she died?"

There was a gasp across the room at how inappropriate it was to shout out such an intrusive question. Even Eddie, despite cutting her teeth in stand-up, seemed thrown for a few seconds. But she soon recovered and went on to talk about the "tenacious bastard attitude" and "determination gene" that have fuelled her during every marathon and every challenge she has taken on so far, and which she will bring to her political career if she's selected to stand.

She'll need that determination gene to take on respected local councillor Abtisam Mohamed, Labour activist Abdi Suleiman, journalist and campaigner Mike Buckley, and no doubt other candidates - potentially including Sheffield councillor Jayne Dunn - who are seeking out a seat with a strong Labour majority.

It remains to be seen whether people feel Eddie is “Sheffield enough”, whether her fame works for or against her, and whether her trans identity will overtake her politics in voters’ priorities. But that 'tenacious bastard attitude' has carried her a long way so far.

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