I have considered writing a post along these lines for a while, and always reined myself in. However something happened last weekend which caused me to possibly re-evaluate a few of the things I’m going to say in the first few paragraphs. Not all of them, but a few of them. But please understand that the reason I’m writing them down now is to demonstrate how the weekend’s events changed some of these views.
I have a problem with drag queens. I don’t like them. Individually they might be very nice people, but the concept thoroughly riles me. Firstly, they are not part of the transgender spectrum. I don’t care if they appear on a widely-circulated cartoon showing all these various terms under a big umbrella called “Transgender”, the cartoonist was wrong. Drag queens are putting on a character, and that character is to put it bluntly, a vicious and sexist pastiche of women cis and trans alike. I feel about drag queens the way I imagine a person of Afro-Caribbean descent might feel about the Black & White Minstrel Show. Even if it is unintentional on their part, and I am perfectly happy to believe that many drag queens are lovely human beings, I believe that they reinforce horrible transphobic prejudices that (a) we are all just blokes in dresses and (b) that is inherently funny.
There is a popular gay bar in Belfast called Union Street. Every Saturday afternoon they run a karaoke event hosted by the a drag queen going by the delightful name of Tina Leggs Tantrum. Why can’t they just call themselves Susan or Mary? The event is called – and I’m only going to write this once because I thoroughly despise the term – “Tina’s Trannyoke”. Ugh, my keyboard feels dirty now. The T-word has been used to belittle, ridicule and marginalise trans* people for many years, and including it in the name of an event is perpetuating a transphobic term. I don’t care if some, cross-dressers in the main, use it about themselves; Uncle Toms the lot of them, part of the problem. To me, having a drag queen front a karaoke event and calling it T*****oke is morally equivalent to having a blacked-up white guy doing the same event, telling a bunch of Jim Davidson “Chalky White” jokes from the 1970s in between the songs and calling it N*****oke. Unacceptable. However despite this, T*****oke remains inexplicably popular. In fact, I was invited to go to it a few weeks ago, and I may have had a bit of a rant at the inviter. Such is the price of being true to my beliefs.
As well as the downright offensiveness of the name itself, up until last weekend I had never darkened the doors of Union St or any other gay bar simply because that’s not really a world that I have any interest in. I am transitioning to be a woman, not to be a trans woman, and so I remain highly reluctant to do things or go places that mark me out as not quite like other women. Quite a while ago I wrote a post entitled “Russian Closets“, and I think most of what I wrote then still stands. I can get the appeal for the L, the G and the B of LGBT. Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual are sexualities, so if for example a gay man went into a mainstream bar, he would need to be extremely careful about hitting on a guy there as it could not just cause offence, but cause a violent reaction. So there’s a lot to be said for LGB people having a safe venue where you don’t have to rely on “Gaydar” to know if someone is likely to be of the same sexuality as you. However my part of LGBT is about gender, not sexuality. In fact, I’m not sure what my sexuality even is any more and it doesn’t particularly interest me anyway. So to me, a trans person going into a gay bar is just a slightly bigger closet. I don’t want to be in the closet. If a cis woman of my age wouldn’t do it on a regular basis, I don’t really want to do it either. To do otherwise would be to have what seems to me to be an inauthentic transition, not fully living as a woman, but as something slightly different. It’s not for me.
Now on to the events of the weekend.
Over the last four or five months I have got to know another trans lady called Karen. She is one of the loveliest, friendliest and most positive and upbeat people I know. Oddly enough, I have got to know her because our weekly electrolysis appointments are very close. Hers finishes 15 minutes before mine begins, and almost without fail by the time I turn up at 5.15pm the electrolysist is running at least 15 minutes late, so I arrive just as Karen is emerging from her appointment. We then have a 15-minute chat on the sofa in the waiting area before I go in for my weekly 30 minutes of torture. And this is where it gets a bit odd. I only went full time in July. Karen has not yet gone full time, and is targeting October for her full time date. This means that, rather bizarrely, for the first two or three months that we knew each other, we had only ever seen each other presenting as male. Now that I am full time, Karen sees me presenting female every week, but up until a week ago I had still only ever seen her presenting as male.
A couple of weeks ago I had mentioned to her about the “Transphobia: How The Police Can Help” event being run by the Belfast Butterfly Club that I mentioned briefly in my last post, and she said she would come along. It was there that I finally saw Karen as Karen for the first time. Honestly, if it hadn’t been for the fact that I had seen photos I don’t think I would have recognised her. She looked great. Anyway, we were chatting after the talk had finished and she asked if I would like to come with her to dinner on Saturday night. She even offered to give me a lift. How could I refuse?
By 6pm on Saturday Karen arrived at my house, bearing a bunch of flowers and a bottle of wine for my new home. She said she would be a little early so we could have a wee tipple first. And since she was driving, she suggested going to her favourite bar; Union Street! And thanks to the joys of social pressure, I said ok then. And in we went to find in full flow… T*****oke!!!
Except it wasn’t T*****oke, it has been renamed T-Oke. That’s a good start. Still an effing drag queen running it though. Why? He would be just as entertaining and a lot more inclusive presenting as himself. Karen seemed to know a lot of people, including our host, but chaperoned me upstairs to a quieter balcony area. Quieter, as in less busy. We could still hear some appalling caterwauling from downstairs, but thankfully not to the extent where our conversation was drowned out. Karen asked me the question
“So, what do you think of Union St?”
Well, I must admit that I told her. I told her pretty much what I wrote in the first three paragraphs of this post. And then I heard her side of things. I thought her defence of drag queens was fairly weak (“They’re just making a living” – yes, and so were the blackfaced white men on the Black & White Minstrel Show, that doesn’t mean we should bring it back) although she does share my distaste for the t-word. However what was more interesting for me and really did cause me to rearrange a few prejudices was her story of how she came to be a regular in this bar, and how she ended up knowing everyone.
Karen is of a similar age to me, and while she is not fully out to everyone and full time yet, she does plenty in female mode. Probably a lot more than I ever did as a part-timer. But round about the same time as I was beginning to take my first faltering steps out into the world as a woman, she was too. Except for me it was a case of making contact with a trans support group, going there a few times and going home again before eventually striking out from there into the real world, Karen approached things differently. In her mind, the safest place for her to present female in public was in a gay bar. Union Street, to be precise. So back at that same time when I was starting out, she put on a dress, heels, wig and make-up and drove herself to Union St, walked in the door, stood inside the bar but right beside the door for about 20 minutes, walked back out again and drove home without speaking to a soul. She laughed when I told her that my first “in public” experience was walking into Tesco and back out again. But not to be deterred, she tried again the next week, and this time as she was standing alone a man approached her. He introduced himself as Mark, and said that she looked like a lost sheep and would she like to join him and his friends. Mark and his friends are a group of gay guys, and they took Karen under their wing, listening to her story and bringing her into their group. They became fast friends, they made her feel safe when she was just starting out and in their own way they became her support group. They have all even gone on holiday together, with Karen in male form. So in fact for Karen, coming to Union St isn’t hiding away in a closet any more, it’s where she goes to meet her friends. It’s no more a closet for her than a support group like the Belfast Butterfly Club or SAIL is for me. And I think I finally understood that this place could be a good place for a trans woman to come. I still wasn’t keen on the drag queen though, and the singers were without exception dire.
About 45 minutes later I had finished my glass of Sauvignon Blanc and we were back in Karen’s car heading off to an Indian Restaurant in the Dundonald area of Belfast to meet a group of female friends. This group is actually another Meetup group, just like the one of which my book group forms a part. This group however is an LGBT women’s group. I don’t have a problem with that at all. I am an LGBT woman. I’m definitely a T, and I might also be an L or even a B but the jury is still out on that one. Now that I think about it though, surely by definition it must be an LBT women’s group, right?
There were only five of us there, Karen and myself included, and we had a really lovely evening. The food was pretty good, although I do love Indian food anyway, and the company was great. I felt like I got on well with the other three women too, and I really must join the group. They do meals once a month, but also cinema outings and other events too. It was good fun. However at the end of the meal at around 10.30, Karen asked if I wanted her to take me home or did I want to go somewhere else. I said something I could never have imagined myself saying even five hours previously;
“Let’s go back to Union St.”
By this time the T-Oke had thankfully finished and of course Karen’s friends had all arrived and I got to meet them all. They were without exception, genuinely lovely people and easy company. I met the aforementioned Mark, and also Charlie, Simon, David and a bunch of others whose names escape me. I got into a good chat with Simon in particular, who I have to say is one of the funniest people I have ever met – as camp as a row of tents, and absolutely hilarious. He is the only person I have ever met who can call you a “f***ing c**t” and your reaction is “Aww, sweet”.
Karen had mentioned to her friends that I was a “Union St Virgin”. This was of course true, however it lead them to believe that I was a complete novice at being out in public, and that Karen had taken me under her wing and lead me out on my first ever expedition to a public venue presenting female, just as she had done by herself a few short years ago. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth.
“So is this your first time out then? You look great!”
“No, not at all. I’ve been living full time as a woman since the start of July. I go to work like this. I just haven’t been here before”
“Er… it just never occurred to me.”
As the evening wore on and more wine took effect, we moved downstairs where I ended up in an impromptu conversation with a Catalan (not Spanish!) guy, who was from a small village close to Tarragona, where I worked as an English language assistant on summer camps for Catalan kids during the summer breaks when I was a student. I think he was quite taken aback when I dropped in a few words of Catalan that I had picked up way back then. At this point Karen had been deep in conversation elsewhere but came over and told me there was someone she wanted to introduce me to. She brought me over to a table where a small woman with short black hair was seated. “This is Mary Ellen”, Karen told me. We said hello and shook hands. “Mary Ellen was Deputy Lord Mayor of Belfast last year”. Say what? I didn’t expect to be getting introduced to dignatories. It seems she has been a great advocate for LGBT rights within Belfast City Council, so go her!
My final conversation of the evening was with Charlie, and was quite sincere. He told me that he had been around the gay “scene” in Belfast since he was 15, and he is now 31, and that Karen was the first honest-to-goodness-not-a-drag-queen trans woman that he had ever met, and I was still only the second, and that over the last few years she has completely changed his understanding of trans matters. The friendship between all of them really is genuine. Karen has done so much to educate so many people in that group about what it means to be trans, why it’s completely different to being gay and definitely nothing like being a drag queen. And though I didn’t ask her, it wouldn’t surprise me if Karen was at least part of the reason why the former T*****oke is now T-Oke.
As we finally left and Simon gave me his surname so I could look him up on Facebook, I think I really did get the appeal. It’s not hiding away, it’s just a completely different atmosphere from your average city centre bar. At no time did I feel unsure of anyone, threatened, cautious or afraid. And that’s nothing to do with being trans, it was the same when I was living as male. Look at the wrong person the wrong way and you could end up with a punch in the face or worse for your trouble. No, my evening in Union St made me think of no bar other than “Cheers”
Where everybody knows your name
And you’re always glad you came
I was so, so wrong about that place. Preconceptions rearranged.