TenEighty’s week of features to mark the UK’s LGBTQ+ History Month concludes as we talk exclusively to trans YouTuber Alex Bertie about bullies, beards, and sharing everything online.
“The beard is like my trophy, almost,” explains Alex Bertie. “It shows that I’ve got there. It’s the concept. It’s the testosterone, it’s the surgery, it’s that manliness that I want – the beard kind of represents that for me. Because at the minute I’ve only got three chin hairs, and that’s not okay.”
Chin hairs he’s not only counted, but named. “Well, I have a lot of spare time,” he grins. “One’s called Pete.”
Alex is the UK’s most prominent transgender YouTuber. On his TheRealAlexBertie channel, which he created in 2010, videos of him making pizza and assembling flatpack furniture sit alongside reviews of chest binders and stand-to-pee prosthetics.
“I don’t think I’d be making videos as often as I do, and with as much passion as I have, without that aspect of my life,” he acknowledges. “I could make art videos, I could make gaming videos, but it wouldn’t be as different or have as much impact as being trans does. I mean, I do that [other stuff] anyway, now and then, but I feel like I have a really unique thing to give to YouTube. It would just be a wasted opportunity, that I have that and could give that.”
Last year, Alex began the journey towards medically transitioning, chronicling his progress in a series of videos called The Quest to Alex’s Beard. He’s made a spontaneous call-to-arms from the first video – “You want a beard? Go get your beard!” – available on t-shirts, complete with a bearded drawing of himself. (“You should have worn the beard shirt,” his boyfriend, Jake Edwards, tells him, during our interview. “I can’t wear my own face though,” Alex points out, “that’s not right!”)
“I could make gaming videos, but it wouldn’t have as much impact as being trans does…”
His earliest videos were a long way from where he’s ended up. “I was trying to be a popular YouTuber,” he recalls. “I was kind of like 12, 13, so I was making lip-sync videos and stuff that was popular at the time.”
It was when he started to discover his sexuality that his videos started to be about something. “I found something that made me different,” he nods. “I came out as gay, and I made that as a second channel, because I didn’t want all my friends and stuff seeing that. Then I got loads of people asking me about it, and so I started making tips and stuff, on that channel. Then I completely got rid of the old channel, and just kept on going with the new one.”
When he realised he was trans, he started talking about that, too. “I just wanted to put my life out there, I guess, and do my best to help people with what I was going through. Because obviously I was getting bullied quite a bit, and I wanted to help people get round that.”
His expectations for the channel were low. “I got a couple hundred views, and thought that was amazing,” he smiles. “Then I hit a hundred subscribers and almost died. I really didn’t think much of it, because I was just doing it every week, so I didn’t really see it progress very quickly – it was like a slow build, of people just watching and saying it was good.”
Today, aged 19, Alex has over 86,000 subscribers, and his videos have been viewed almost five million times.
He doesn’t regret making those early vlogs (“that helped me actually learn to make and produce the videos,” he points out), but putting himself out there made life harder. “That was half the reason I got bullied at school,” he says. “People knew I was on YouTube, and they thought that was a little bit weird, because obviously we were really, really young at the time.
“A couple of times, my channel actually got deleted by the school, because I was getting bullied for it. They were like, ‘Right, the only solution is you have to stop doing this’, instead of telling the people that were bullying me to stop bullying me. Which is just completely wrong.”
Alex’s videos are straightforward and open, sharing his life in disarming detail. In Transgender Intimacy, for example, he and Jake (who’s also a trans man) explain how they have sex without making one another dysphoric; the video has been watched more than 170,000 times. Making a video about something so personal would be impressive for any popular YouTuber, let alone someone navigating trans issues along the way.
“If I have a problem, and I feel like someone is going to face that, I just want to be real with the internet,” he explains. “That’s why my YouTube name is what it is – TheRealAlexBertie. It didn’t really bother me who was going to see my videos, so that’s probably a big part of that. It only takes a few people to stand up and actually say something to make a difference, so I want to be one of those people, I guess.”
How much planning goes into those kinds of videos? “I don’t really script,” he admits. “Only when I am talking about something specific, like how to come out, or how to bind, or how to pack, or something like that – then I’ll sit there and write some lines out, because I want it to be as accurate as possible. But when it’s just me messing around with my boyfriend, it’s not that much of a big deal, because we can cut and edit things. As long as it’s funny, that’s all that really matters.”
“It only takes a few people to stand up and say something to make a difference. I want to be one of those people…”
But it’s not just the level of openness that’s impressive. In the second Quest to Alex’s Beard video, Alex talks about getting a phone call at college and learning that the doctor he’d opened up to had referred him not to the Gender Identity Clinic, as the system requires, but to a mental health service. “I’m so angry, I’m so upset,” he tells the camera. “The fact I’ve tried to do this twice, and both times I’ve been referred to the wrong places… Every professional I’ve tried to put my trust in has not done their job properly.”
Then, half-way through, he casually clarifies when all this happened: “I got home probably ten minutes ago”. Not only is he sharing a devastating setback with an audience of tens of thousands, he’s doing it immediately.
“I like getting to things right when they happen, otherwise I water stuff down,” he tells TenEighty. “It’s fresh in my mind. The next day, it might not be a big deal to me any more, but it was in that minute, and that’s how much it meant to me then. After it’s been a while, because I know it’s happened, I won’t necessarily involve really specific details.”
Does he ever have second thoughts about telling young trans* people how difficult and distressing things like that can be? “I hope to put people’s defences up as much as possible,” he asserts, “because at the same time as I want them to be happy, I don’t want them to be disappointed. I plan to get my beard eventually. Even though all my bad stuff happens, I’m going to get there. And I want people to know if all the bad stuff happens to them that could possibly happen, they’re going to get their beard – or whatever – eventually.”
There are consequences to living as a trans man so openly online. “When people ask what your birth name is, and people are spamming you constantly asking what genitals you have, that’s kind of intrusive,” he says, “because they can easily find out those questions. Some people just really don’t think before they speak. But it’s easy to, like, block out those questions anyway, because I get asked them a lot. It was tough when I first started making videos, though.
“I’m not scared to tell people to stop. I don’t really mind, because they can pretty much find anything anywhere, about any part of my life. It’s only [people finding] other members of my family – that’s kind of a ‘no’ for me.”
With 86,000 subscribers following him every step of the way, his viewership includes every conceivable demographic. “I’ve actually had a lot of parents talking to me,” he reveals. “Like, parents have inboxed me on Facebook, which is so weird. They’re, like, older than my mum, and they’re open to talking about it, which is just amazing. They’re willing to reach out to young people, which I think is really, really cool.
“Some people come to me with queries. They think their child might be going through what I’m going through, and they want to help them with that as much as possible. Other times, they’ve been directed by their kids to come and talk to me, or to watch my videos.”
“Parents have inboxed me on Facebook, thinking their child might be going through what I’m going through…”
Given that he’s still tackling family issues of his own, being asked to advise other people must be weird. “Yeah,” he nods. “It’s kind of difficult, because obviously my home life isn’t perfect either, so it’s a lot of pressure to get it right for the kid that needs it, the parent’s kid. Most of the time, I just direct them to a video, because nine out of ten times, I’ve already made a video about what they’re asking for.
“I think I do get a lot of positivity. More than I thought I’d get. Now and then, I do get the odd bit of confusion, or some hate, but that’s easily nipped in the bud just by information, just by education.
“People understand, and I’ve had people that used to know me come to me and apologise, because they’ve seen my videos, which is really cool. Like, they’ve Facebooked me, people that I used to know in school, that used to pick on me. They send me messages two years down the line saying ‘I’m sorry, you are actually really cool, we have similar values’, and that’s awesome.
“I like to put it all past me, but you do have moments – ‘Do I forgive these people?’,” he smiles. “But they have gone out of their way to contact you, and let you know. So it is good. I don’t like to hold a grudge against people that actually come forward and tell me that they’re sorry. Everyone deserves forgiveness when it comes to that stuff, because education is understanding.”
Although many of his viewers are cisgender, Alex’s trans* following rightly remain his focus. “I want them to feel comfortable in their skin,” he emphasises. “There’s a lot of bad information out there, a lot of misinformation, and it’s really hard for trans* people to find more intimate things about what they’re going through. There’s not really a lot of people who have documented every appointment, stuff like that. There’s a few people out there – only a handful, though, and a lot of them are American, so there will be slightly different pathways. So that’s why I do it, I’d say – mostly for the trans* people.”
Last year, Alex’s popularity took him to Summer in the City in London. “It was fun,” he grins. “I had a lot of people coming up to me and saying ‘Hey, I know you from the internet!’, and they were people I didn’t think were ever going to know me, because I’m trans. And they know me not because I’m trans, but because I talk about things. It’s just really nice. Having big YouTubers talk to me makes me feel like I am part of that community, and I’m not separated.”
He appeared on the event’s LGBTQ+ Panel where, of seven panellists, he was the sole representative of any trans* identities. As the first trans* vlogger in the UK to achieve that kind of mainstream profile, there must be huge pressure on him to represent an entire community.
“I know!” he says. “It’s tough being, like, the token trans* person of a panel, or of a talk, or something like that. There’s a lot of T representation on YouTube, but people just don’t watch them, because they’re not easy to find. Most of the time, you find a trans* person through a video of them talking about sexuality, [but] we don’t want to be associated with the sexuality side of it, because they’re completely different things.”
But with so few prominent trans* YouTubers out there, presumably the alternative to Alex representing his community alone at those events is no representation at all. “Exactly, yeah. It’s a lot of pressure to actually talk about it, but I do feel obliged to do it, because I feel like I’m doing my thing for my community. There’s a bunch of people in America that are well-known YouTubers, and they get asked to do a lot of things like the Trevor Project, which embraces a lot of trans* people, but not really here in the UK. Stonewall recently reached out to me as well, so that was really good, cos they’ve had a problem with trans* people.”
“I want to show people the day I wake up from my surgery, and stuff like that…”
Going forward, Alex has a long list of aims for his channel. “I want to finish The Quest for Alex’s Beard. That’s like, the number one priority. I want to get there, and I want to show people the day I wake up from my surgery, and stuff like that. That’s deep in the future, that’s a couple of years.
“I want my YouTube to take me to doing more public speaking. I recently did a couple of things and it was really cool – we went to Preston, and we spoke at their uni [the University of Central Lancashire] for trans* remembrance – so I definitely want to do more stuff like that.
“I want to be at more YouTube events – Summer in the City, maybe even Vidcon in the future – to get my face out there, show people that trans* people are here and we like this stuff, we like being out and being happy, we’re not all sitting in our rooms and feeling sad about ourselves.”
He’s determined to document his experience as a trans person beyond the medical transition. “There’s a lot of trans people [on YouTube], but they kind of make videos for a little while, and then they stop,” he points out. “Because they’ve finished transitioning, and because they don’t have that viewership, they don’t feel like they can continue, because they don’t feel like they’ve got anything new to add – which is completely wrong. Like, if you’re a trans person, every day you face experiences other people don’t face, and other people should realise that you go through. You should just carry on, I think.
“I’m at college doing graphic design, so eventually I want to be doing that. But for as long as I can, I want to be doing the YouTube thing. The trans thing isn’t just until I finish medically transitioning – it’s my whole life. I have so much more experiences surrounding trans stuff to go through, like finding a job, moving out, and dealing with kinds of documents and registration and the government with my identity.
“I want to share as much as I can with the internet, until I literally have no more to share,” he concludes. “Which will be a long time in the future.”
Photos by Olly Newport.
Looking for more Alex Bertie?
Alex featured in two articles over Christmas and New Year alongside 25 other YouTubers. The first saw them answer questions about Christmas, the last reflected on 2014 and the year ahead. He also featured in our coverage of the LGBTQ+ Panel at Summer in the City 2014. Alternatively, you can read our LGBTQ+ History Month articles:
- LGBTQ+ on YouTube: Does Being Gay Affect Your Content?
- LGBTQ+ on YouTube: What is Queer-Baiting?
- LGBTQ+ on YouTube: Why are Some YouTubers Closeted?
- Five of the Best: Dealing with Sexuality
To see the full Alex Bertie: Being trans on YouTube cover or more exclusive photo-sets, check out our Tumblr or click the links below:
- Alex Bertie TenEighty 2015 Photo-Set 01
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- Alex Bertie TenEighty 2015 Cover