I have a whole post mostly written about something that’s been on my mind for a few weeks, but I have decided that instead I’m going to relate an incident that happened last night and which has given me possibly my first ever insight into my siblings’ attitude to trans* persons. I wrote last time round about the film that I made for my sister’s 60th birthday. Well last night was her birthday party and we presented her with her DVD. It was very well received and a most enjoyable evening was had by one and all. The thing is, my sister lives in Co Kildare, in the Republic of Ireland, over 130 miles from chez Kirsty. This necessitated an overnight stay for the whole family, and so we checked into a hotel in her nearest town. It wasn’t exactly the most modern hotel, in fact walking in there felt like stepping back in time to the 1950s. I think the receptionist may have been working there since the 1950s too. Anyway, once we had all met up (I’m the youngest of five) I was commenting to the younger of my two brothers about the old-fashioned hotel, and his face lit up with the air of a man who has just stumbled upon the opportunity to tell an hilarious anecdote. He said “Did you never hear my story about the transvestite in that hotel?” Well no, I hadn’t. And I’d be quite happy not to hear it. But I had lit the blue touchpaper so all I could do now was to stand well back…
Back in the early 90s my brother was staying in this hotel with a work colleague as they were doing a job in the area – he works for an industrial electrical installation company, basically they put electrical control systems into factories – and they were at dinner. Brother was sitting facing his friend when the friend quietly said “Don’t look back but right behind you…” but of course brother did look back. Not only did he look back, but he said the kitchen staff were emerging to peer around the corner at this vision sitting behind him. It was, in my brother’s words, a man dressed as a woman. But also in his words, he was all man. Hands like shovels, “big farmer’s hands” and an overall look like “Walter Matthau in a dress”. Visible stubble may also have played a part in the description. At this point I tensed internally, awaiting the outpouring of laughs at how weird this freak was. But his tone changed. I’m prepared to forgive him the misgendering as something of a fool’s pardon, but the next thing my brother said was “He must have had a heart like a lion to do that, and remember this was 20 or 25 years ago. To have everyone staring, and he must have known they were staring, but just being himself. He just must have something inside him that makes him have to do this and my heart went out to him”.
Apparently when checking out the next morning his friend made some comment to the receptionist (the same one that was there yesterday, although 20 years ago when she was in her 70s) about the transvestite in the restaurant and she replied “I wouldn’t have minded if he had been clean-shaven like you”. Oh ha bloody ha.
At this point my other sister (not the birthday girl) stumbled into the conversation so the whole thing had to get repeated again. And when the story came to an end, my sister’s comment was something like “I just find it so sad. People like that just want to be left to be themselves and they get stared at and laughed at and worse and they’re not doing anybody any harm. They just have this inside them and they can’t do anything about it.” Woah.
So I’m not sure how to feel about that. I didn’t really say anything at all other than resolutely not laughing or even smiling. What could I say? In the end they were pretty supportive of trans* people despite the misgendering, but at the same time the appearance of a very unpassable TV (or maybe TS, who knows?) was still considered entertaining enough to have filed away in the anecdote bank for party conversation. I’m trying to cling to the supportive part of things. And of course, at the same time I’m wondering what that means if I ever come out to them. I mean, at least I don’t look like Walter Matthau! More a Jack Lemmon type if anything.
My emotions went through several stages during the telling and retelling of this tale. My initial sinking feeling at my brother telling this “amusing” anecdote about a bloke in a dress, and then thinking “Oh, maybe that’s not so bad” when he expressed a kind of respect and admiration for the guts it took to go out like that. Relief at the empathy from both brother and sister for the discrimination that trans* people suffer from, even if it was coupled with a lack of self-awareness that filing away an “amusing” story about a TV to relate at parties for the next 25 years may be slightly perpetuating certain myths. But in the end I felt a pang of shame at myself that has lingered all day. Because I have to admit that I am not innocent in judging people on their appearances. And particularly judging my fellow trans* people in that way. Admittedly, with me it’s usually about thinking “What the hell are you wearing?” than anything else, but it has made me take quite a critical look at myself.
Regular readers will know it took my a long time to fully present as female. Aside from lack of opportunity, I believe that the principal reason for me not fully presenting as female until the ripe old age of 43 was fear. Fear that I was going to look completely ridiculous. I think the comparison I have made before is Ronnie Barker. As it happens, Walter Matthau would be an equally good comparison. When I finally plucked up the courage in February last year and did my first full transformation, even to this day I think that if I had thought I looked like one of those two fine gentlemen, then that would have been the end of that and I would have been forever behind closed doors. I try not to develop an ego, but the fact is that most of the time I do think I look pretty good. If I had thought that first time doing a full transformation that I looked like a really obvious majorly unpassable bloke-in-a-dress, there is no way I would ever have gone out in public. No matter how much I wanted to, no matter how great the urge was, I don’t think I could ever have got over the fear of what would happen to me. So what that t-person did in walking into that hotel restaurant, on her own, in the early 90’s, well I could never have done that. It’s a possibility that everyone does in fact point stare and snigger at me, just like in that hotel all those years ago, but I am blissfully unaware of it, and wish to remain so.
The real problem for me is this. I go out regularly with Andrea and Michelle. I have done so much with them both, and particularly with Andrea (ferries, hotels, B&Bs etc), and with little or no obvious negativity, that I have to feel that the three of us manage to go relatively unnoticed most of the time. It’s the same on the handful of occasions when I have been out with Ruth. She blends in as just another woman so well. And my experience tells me that I must do too. I really hope I’m not making a fool of myself in saying this. So the problem is when I look at other trans* persons who I fear wouldn’t necessarily blend in with other women, and my thinking that I don’t want to spend time with them in public. Now if you’re reading this and wondering if you are one of those trans* persons to whom I’m referring, don’t worry. It’s not you. It’s her. Yes, I know. But anyway, I worry that I’m an awful shallow bitch thinking like this. To go back to what my sister said, they just want to be themselves and they’re not doing anybody any harm. But I can’t help but feel that if I was out and about with someone I felt was obviously not passable, they would be doing harm to me and my chances of going unnoticed, or at least occupying the is-she-or-isn’t-she zone. And fundamentally, that means I’m thinking that I don’t want to be seen with another person because of how they look, and that’s a pretty horrible thing to do to someone else even if it is just a generic stereotype and not a real person I’m talking about. What does that say about me? Is it justifiable self-preservation? Am I in fact and in my own way, a transphobe? I don’t like this feeling, it reeks of the school bully and Mean Girls.
In feeling bad about this, I’m not talking about what I think of as the “lime green leggings brigade”, t-people who knowingly or unknowingly dress in a wildly inappropriate manner. No, I’m quite happy to give them a wide berth with a clear conscience. If someone wants to deliberately make an exhibition of themselves, well that’s their lookout. Plus, if they’re standing on one side of the road and I’m on the other, nobody’s going to be looking at me are they? But for trans women who just can’t get within a sniff of the is-she-or-isn’t-she zone because, well, they look like Walter Matthau, what can I say? I respect you deeply, you’re probably a wonderful human being, but it is to my great discredit that I can’t bring myself to be seen with you.
So to everyone out there who recognises themselves as not-remotely-passable and goes the hell out anyway, I salute you. You are braver and better women than me.