The first, former non-binary mayor of Bangor is studying a PhD in Trans Archaeology at the University of York

18/05/2024

Nadia Sayed interviews Owen Hurcum (they/them) on their experiences of studying Trans Archaeology and being a trans activist.

Article Image

Image by Owen Hurcum

By Nadia Sayed

The world’s first, former, non-binary mayor of the Welsh city of Bangor is pursuing a PhD in ‘Transgender Archeology’ at the University of York. Owen Hurcum (they/them) received funding from the White Rose Arts and Humanities Research Council (WRoCAH), an organisation which offers internationalised doctoral training programmes across three UK Russell Group universities, including the University of Leeds, Sheffield and York (where Owen is pursuing their PhD).

Owen told Nouse, “I’ve always loved archaeology”. The 26-year-old further explained that they grew up watching the programme ‘Time Team’ – a show about archaeological exploration in Britain and the importance of the past.

In 2016, Owen began their undergraduate degree in Archeology at Prifysgol Bangor University, where they stayed to do their Masters in Celtic Archeology.

“It was a no-brainer to stay there [Prifysgol Bangor University] for my Masters, but I did feel that whilst there is so much expertise in Archaeology [at Bangor] it was time to experience a new challenge and find supervisors who specialised in the type of theory I got into [Queer Archaeology],” said Owen.

Nouse asked Owen what influenced them to study a PhD in Trans Archeology. Owen explained they had looked into the University of York after investigating specialists adjacent archaeological theories.

They further stated that their aspiration to study a PhD in Archeology stemmed from “a lifelong line of love of Archeology, a developed love in Queer theory whilst at Prifysgol Bangor University and using [their] lived experience and interactions with the trans community and as a trans person.”

When asked if they could outline the subject of Trans Archeology, Owen replied: “Depending on who you ask it’s either a stand-alone thing or a part of gender Archeology which started in 1984,” stating the fact that this was “when archaeologists discovered that women exist.”

Owen also addressed the primary issues which Trans Archeology aims to interrogate: “How do we queer gender beyond a binary? How do we talk to genders that are not Western ‘man and woman’? […] How do we apply archaeological analysis to that because, if we don’t, we are effectively saying that for all of human history […] there have been two genders existing exactly as the West wants them to exist today. It’s pretty self-evident that gender is more complicated than that.”

“It is about developing a framework in archaeology that can help elucidate gender variants in the past and about making technology a tool for transgender emancipation in the present.”

When asked if the University of York had been supportive of Owen’s studies, as an openly trans and non-binary researcher, Owen stated the University “have lots of systems in place for harassment for researchers in public situations.”

However, they also explained, “[I don’t think that] the University has ever had to deal with the sheer level and quantity of hate which being a trans researcher can generate.”

“I come with a social media following and exposure from my time in politics and being the mayor of a city.” As a result, Owen has become a target for transphobic abuse, something they have become used to, and even anticipatory of, over time.

According to a report published by the Home Office in the year ending March 2023, “transgender hate crimes increased by 11%, to 4,732 offences” in England and Wales.

Owen candidly shared their experiences of transphobic abuse stating: “I have been sent weird images of somebody mopping up a desiccated chicken carcass with blue hair, I get called a paedophile and mentally ill.”

Despite the hate, Owen acknowledges the support provided by the University throughout their studies, conveying the fact that they feel completely safe and supported at the University of York. They also expressed full confidence in the University’s capabilities to support fellow researchers in the same or similar fields. Owen’s funding body (WRoCAH) has also reached out to offer them support.

Nouse then inquired whether transphobic abuse had ever deterred Owen from the continuation of their trans activism. Owen responded: “It definitely took its toll at the beginning.”

However, Owen said they have built up several coping mechanisms, which they have used to overcome the hate they continue to receive, exacerbated by the existence of their platform on social media.

“Amongst all the hatred I have always and continue to get a lot of support, which is nice, and people reach out to me in different ways,” said Owen.

Owen also explained that one of their coping mechanisms is to read the hate comments they receive. Owen expressed that some criticism, especially within academic journals and newspapers try to sound “smart” however, they stated that this is rarely achieved. Therefore, their coping mechanism is “to read the hate comments [they] get sent because they [the comments] are all dumb in content transphobia.”

Owen expressed online hate is much simpler: “I know I am not a Nazi, someone may call me a Nazi for being trans, I can go, ‘well you’re wrong,’ and it’s weirdly cathartic.”

They also commented that, as a researcher in Trans theory, transphobic abuse often becomes “data points” within their research.

However, they articulated the fact that they do not recommend reading hate comments as a coping mechanism.They concluded by offering advice to individuals facing exponential levels of hate: “Don’t feel like, just because you’re trans or queer or any minority that your lived experience has to be activism. You can be an activist because somebody is going to see you in public and know that it’s okay and you know you’re going to get help from that one person. You don’t have to put everything on social media if you don’t feel comfortable.” They also recommended surrounding yourself with “lovely people” and to “reach out for support.”

From 2021 to 2022 Owen served as the world’s first openly non-binary Mayor of Bangor, Wales.

When asked about their mayoral experience, Owen stated: “I am very proud of the time I have spent on the council […] and I am very privileged that Bangor accepted me as their mayor.” However, they expressed that it was not a one-person operation and they worked closely with a team of twenty people working “their arses off for the city, unpaid.”

They also stated that their mayoral experience currently exists in two parts of their mind.

Firstly, their mayoral position gave them a platform to speak on behalf of trans issues, which they said got them “twice investigated by the national ombudsman [with] no misconduct found obviously because saying trans people are human is not an act of misconduct. […] I was never going to stop talking about trans things [as mayor].”

In another sphere, they value their experience and their achievements including continuing the city council’s donations of “upwards of £1000 every month to food share projects in the city [so that] locals could get without ‘proof of need’’ and freezing council tax for a year. All of which, Owen emphasised, was a joint effort with the entire team of Bangor city council.

Nouse then inquired that, in lieu of Owen’s five-year anniversary of coming out as trans, were they ever afraid to come out, and how did people respond?

“I have known since my earliest memory that I wasn’t a boy, I just didn’t know what that meant I was or if that could even be a thing. There was a lot less visibility around non-binary people back in the day,” replied Owen.

“What even is gender? Who cares - it doesn’t matter! Coming out was an ongoing process. You consistently come out.”

One of the first people Owen told was their friend Amber, who was incredibly supportive and an instrumental part of their coming out. Owen’s family was also supportive of their coming out. “Bless my step-dad. He said, ‘I always thought you’d been a bit of a dandy,’ which is such a nice thing.”

They went on to emphasise that coming out is something that should be done “when it is safe, when it is right, and when it is comfortable and that can change situationally.”

Nouse then asked what Owen thought of the current state of transphobia in the UK. Owen expressed the fact that trans people are one of the main talking points in UK politics at the moment, which “terrifies” them.

They stated that they believe the rough trajectory they see happening in the UK (without intersession) includes making it harder for trans people to access puberty blockers and NHS treatment to the eventual revoking of people’s Gender Recognition Certificates.

When asked what Owen thought were some of the solutions to this, they stated that activism, direct action and attending support groups were all important. They also stated that they think transphobia is being justified in part by denying trans history, therefore their academic study in Trans Archeology is an aspect of their own activism.

More importantly, Owen emphasises the power of trans joy, which they describe as the “opposite of trans rage - understanding that regardless of how you feel, you can find joy in certain things.”

Owen listed several examples of trans joy, including having your name and pronouns used correctly and wearing clothes that fit you in the way you want them to.

“Whatever brings you joy, do it with pride and in a way that is genuine to you,” said Owen, expressing that “you can find joy in everything.”

“It is powerful to stand up and say the best thing that ever happened to me was coming out [and] you can never take away who I am and how grateful I am that I am me.”

Finally, Nouse asked Owen where they saw themselves in the future to which they responded: “I will keep doing activism, spreading trans joy and [they are] keen to continue [their] journey as a researcher in academic settings.”