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Poet Tanaka Fuego on reclaiming beaches and pools

BY Amelia Abraham

Tanaka

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An infectiously charismatic spoken word poet and performer from London, Tanaka Fuego is also a community facilitator and qualified mental health first aider. His poems cut to the core of “the world and how it affects me”, taking on topics including queerness, Blackness and masculinity through Tanaka’s unique ability to paint a scene.

Take his well-known poem, “Girl Who Misgendered Me on a Train”, a lyrical confrontation with that experience. “Language is expansive,” says Tanaka of why he’s a poet. “We always had griots and storytellers. Before Apple and iMessage and Android we had people going country to country telling stories.”

Raised near Southend, Tanaka grew up accustomed to life by the British seaside (and accustomed to mini–golf). “Water and I have had a love affair since I can remember,” he jokes, but explains that it’s been a complicated love affair. Being around the beach as a kid is one reason why he prefers dipping a toe in or swimming in open water or the ocean over visiting swimming pools, but it’s also because when he came out at around fifteen years old, he struggled with the exposure and binaries that come with pools as public spaces.

southend
southend on sea

Just as “being alive is political as a Black, dark-skinned, trans masc artist living in this world”, says Tanaka, going to the pool is also political because it involves reclaiming the space for trans people. “It’s like navigating a swimming pool gave me anxiety,” he says, looking back, “like I don’t wanna trigger myself; I don’t wanna go to the women’s changing room, and I wouldn’t care to go to the men’s. But getting the disabled key is too much.”

Finding pools as a place of empowerment and enjoyment has been a journey – and one that is continuous. Over the last few years, Tanaka says his relationship with swimming has changed, mostly positively, as using a binder or binding tape has helped him feel more comfortable with his body (“now it’s like, ‘take your shirt off!”) while working on his mental health and getting to know himself better through transition meant pools began to feel more comfortable. He acknowledges that some of that comfort came with access to money, for the binder, and also to transition. (As Tanaka jokes, “being trans isn’t cheap”.)

On top of this personal journey, he also came to realise that taking up spaces like pools can be a gesture toward building more awareness in those spaces:

“It’s like, if you’ve never seen a trans body before, get used to it! And without sounding like a martyr, maybe in that way, I can take some of the brunt so my trans siblings don’t have to.”

However, it’s not just on trans people to improve awareness and comfort in swimming spaces. In a climate where changing rooms at swimming facilities are “hyper-gendered”, with very little room for those who self identify to feel safe or included and instead feel ostracised and othered, UK pools still need to do better by trans people and other people from marginalised backgrounds in several ways. They need to be affordable (especially at the moment, during a cost of living crisis), says Tanaka, along with training for staff to be more trans-inclusive, and creating pools that are less binary and clinical when it comes to gender. As Tanaka puts it: “sometimes it feels like ‘happy Pride’ on the outside and not on the inside of those spaces”.

These changes are important because pools and beaches are “spaces that can save lives”. Going to beaches and pools as a trans person is autonomy, he concludes, pure and simple. “People can do some things in excess that are damaging, but when you do things in water it is positive, healing, cleansing. Diving into the water is like doing something you’re too scared to at times, but then I know I can do it via a body of water that isn’t going to consume me but allow me to float.”

Brought to you in partnership with Nike Swim, helping people of all backgrounds navigate the waters.