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Photography by Lilly Shields

Kate O’Donnell is a transgender performer, activist and theatre maker. In 2016 she founded Trans Creative arts company with the tagline “telling our own stories”. In recent years it has grown into a vibrant hub for local, national and international trans artists to tell their stories and is now the largest trans arts festival in the UK. In 2017 Kate initiated Manchester's first trans arts festival Trans Vegas giving a platform to 300 trans voices.

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Born in Coventry in 1965, Kate moved to Manchester via Berlin in 1991. “A friend of mine lived in Manchester so I had a sofa to sleep on. The other option was London (where I had done my degree) but, having spent a year in Manchester in the mid 80's signing on, studying dance with Gestures at Shena Simon College and spending nights dancing at the PSV club in Hulme, I went for Manchester as I thought it would be cheaper and more fun. It's definitely been a lot of fun!”

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Kate O'Donnell (photo: Lee Baxter)

Kate’s theatre work includes the award-winning 'Big Girl’s Blouse', acclaimed one woman show ‘You've Changed’, playing Feste in 'Twelfth Night' & Electra in 'Gypsy', both at the Royal Exchange. Kate has directed 'Transpose' at the Barbican two years running and regularly speaks on panels and made guest appearances on the Guilty Feminist podcast. In 2018 she was nominated for the Gay Times Arts and Culture Award.

Kate was a resident of India House on Whitworth Street in the early 1990s. “I had no idea what went on in India House before I moved in, but it couldn’t have been a better place for this budding drag queen to call home. I worked at The Green Room theatre/bar and, even though it was only a 5-minute walk from India House, I was often late as the rest of the time I was enjoying the delights of 90's Queer Manchester on my doorstep. I could literally get dragged up then totter off into the heart of the city - often on my own as I still didn't know many people in Manchester.


“One night I did a pub crawl from the Village to the Hacienda; in drag, swigging pints in the pool halls of Whitworth Street and finally arriving at my first Flesh night. I felt like Flesh was my Manchester coming-out ball - I danced on the scaffolding above DJ Paulette down in the gay traitor, met Paul Cons and Lucy Scher and a whole host of queer creatives who became my Manchester family".

What I loved about India House is that I didn't have to edit myself - popping out of the lift in full drag was no big deal as half of the residents were queer anyway.


“Manchester has been my home for over half my life now and in those 30 years it's always let me do what I want - in fact it's encouraged me to be who I am: a gay man, a drag queen then sober and trans. It has a cheek about it that I love.

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“You have to take your hat off to Manchester, its spirit fuelled me to form Trans Creative with its annual Trans arts festival - Trans Vegas - giving a platform to trans artists and still the only trans arts festival in the UK. If you don't ask, you don’t get. 30 years on, as predicted, Manchester has been the place where I have had the most fun and, as I enter my 60's, I know there is more fun to be had!”


Kate outside India House

THE SHOOT: India House, Whitworth Street, Manchester.

Kate's Manchester home in the early 1990s.

Related links:

Student reflection: Lilly Shields


The shoot with Kate was one I won’t forget in a hurry. She was ball of energy from the moment we met and a brilliant subject to photograph! 


It took place outside and in the doorway of India House on Whitworth Street where Kate lived in the 90s. We shot on the steps of the building where she was instantly recognised by a current tenant. Kate dressed for the occasion in a glamorous eye-catching outfit and looked amazing on all the photographs.

We started the shoot with Kate standing on the steps of India house and then under the building’s iconic brass plaque. we then moved across the road to a quiet side street to get some more intimate shots against a panel of industrial metal sheeting conveniently attached to a wall. Using our trusty LED light wand to add extra light, I managed to capture some amazing portraits.


Photographing Kate O’Donnell was a fantastic experience, she was warm and friendly… a joy to work with. I certainly won’t forget Kate in a hurry!

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Kate & Lilly

The shoot

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