Becoming Alice… My way

Entry #5 (the final one) of an occasional journal of thoughts, experiences and perceptions during a trip from New York, through Doha to Dubai and then on to Australia.

In a way I suppose it was inevitable that Pricilla would follow me around in Alice Springs; not that I ever imagined she would. But having embraced some of the unlikely comparisons (along with the non-existent ones) that I had with the classic movie The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, she actually accompanied me to the airport to see me off.

Happenstance is a remarkable thing. When I booked my AirBnB accommodation in Alice a few weeks earlier, I had a good feeling about the place, but thought no more of it than that. In the subsequent email dialogue with the host, she noticed the default footer on my email promoting ‘Tea and Transition’ and we chatted a little more about that, and who I am.

“You should definitely meet up with Georgie when you are here,” she said. “I’m sure you’d have a lot to talk about.”

So that’s what I did, hoping that we would. We chose coffee at the Olive Pink Botanical Gardens. That’s an amazing place in itself, as it is completely removed from the lush, green botanical gardens that you imagine such a place should be. This is a very special gardens in the middle of the dessert; one that specializes in indigenous plants of the region—which are many and surprisingly varied. The gardens were set up by one Olive Pink; a remarkable pioneering woman who came to Alice Springs in the 1930s after the railway from Adelaide arrived. Renowned as a feisty old lady (always armed with some seriously dangerous sherry), her position of working with Aboriginal culture and not against it was far ahead of her time.

I waited for Georgie at a table outside. A cappuccino in front of me and a small tree lizard a few feet away eying up the latest visitor to his patch. A kangaroo even hopped close by, looking for water on a day that had already reached 35C (95F) at 11.00am.

Georgie arrived, and I was struck by her gorgeous flowing hair and warm smile; both of which fitted well on her tall, lanky frame. Her particular circumstance is that she was born intersex—one of the lesser understood initials within the ever-expanding LGBTIQ acronym. I also had a lot to learn about this far less well known sector of the spectrum. She told me about her own childhood and the misplaced perceptions that those around her had of someone who identified female and yet had the physical attributes of neither binary gender.

We must have talked for over three hours (though I did consume a tasty toastie in that time), and I felt honored to be let into the life of someone different to me and yet with threads of similarity. I could have talked for longer more about where we stood with and outside the LGBT equation, but we both had other places to go. However, wanting to continue our conversation, she offered to take me to the airport the following morning, maybe stopping off for a bite or a cuppa en route.

So the next day she picked me up from the AirBnB and took me out to her car—only it wasn’t a car off course; it was a beaten up van filled with a bunch of possessions in the back. It reminded me of the Mystery Machine that Scooby Doo and his clan used to travel around in, but this one was without the graffiti on the side.

“I wouldn’t mind having that paintwork,” Georgie volunteered, “but I’d be more likely to get pulled over by the cops, and I don’t want that extra hassle—as of course all vans with unconventional paint-jobs just must be filled with dope.” She rolled her eyes at me.

As we had coffee in the center of town (not that there is much more than the center of town in Alice) someone else who knew Georgie came up for a chat. Eddie is a trans-man and just talking to him reinforced the simple fact that even though we were hundreds of miles away from any other town with a population spanning four digits, gender and the perception of self have no geography. Georgie had already told me of many Sister Girls and Brother Boys (that is transgender or gender variant) within the indigenous population and how she and others had tried to reach out to them over the years. Sometimes this had been a success; with some individuals appreciating that even in the remotest parts of the outback they really were not alone. She also told me of one horrific time: a Sister Girl had grown up within indigenous culture and had been accepted as gender variant by her immediate family, and as such, had escaped the male initiation rites that local culture put males through around the age of puberty. But one day a bunch of men took her away, shaved her head, and performed some sort of brutal circumcision on her. As my heart sank hearing such a story, I knew that this event was not unique. I did wonder about the outcome though.

“I really don’t know what happened to her,” Georgie sighed, “she just disappeared.”

I finished my coffee, Georgie finished her roll-up, and we headed back to the van. As the door creaked open and I climbed aboard, I suddenly realized that Priscilla was there too. The beaten-up bus from the movie was equally ramshackle (if not a van), and the three drag queens were replaced in real life by one intersex and one transgender person. Still, unmistakably, we were in Alice Springs. I laughed out loud at how, just a few weeks earlier, I had been afraid to watch that movie; now it was following me around.

“If you like, we can strap you to the top of the van, put you in a cocktail gown, and attach a huge expanse of gold lame to your back as you express yourself on the way to the airport!” Georgie joked. But there was still an element of transparency in what she suggested.

Along the way to the airport, we discussed many more conceptions and mis-perceptions; one of those being how some people assume that trans people are friends with other trans people because they are trans, or intersex folk with other intersex people and so on. We agreed that—for us anyway—any connection was due to simply liking that other person, and not because of any shared history or association with any particular initial within the LGBTIQ spectrum.

We parted at the airport with a big hug, and over the next 24 hours before I left to return home to New York, I contemplated how I had changed during this long trip that started in the Middle East, then took me to Melbourne, and finally Alice Springs. Like many experiences, you don’t always know the implications until much later. But I knew that I had changed, and my own appreciation of others had become even more varied and valid. From human and women’s rights in the Middle East—where even the word transgender does not have an Arabic translation, to the freedoms and wide open spaces of Australia where acceptance is greater but still the ignorance and bigotry of misunderstanding remain. Above all, the biggest influence was the one the least expected: A battered old bus that I never saw but that followed me around Alice Springs, before leaving its own indelible tire tracks in my psyche of perceptions.

Chasing Priscilla

Entry #4 of an occasional journal of thoughts, experiences and perceptions during a trip from New York, through Doha to Dubai and then on to Australia.

Melbourne, Australia.

It’s a long flight from Dubai to Melbourne. But that was to be my next stop on my trek around the world. After the relative restrictions of a week in the Middle East, I was looking forward to letting my hair down a little more; not worry about the length of my skirt or whether I could easily discuss being transgender with the media or the public at large. I whiled away the more than 12 hours catching some sleep (not that I ever find that easy on a flight) and watching movies. One that caught my eye was a documentary from 2015: “Between a Frock and a Hard Place”—the story behind the 1994 classic movie, “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert”.

The movie, however, is one that I have always steered clear of. Yes, I knew the reviews were great, the critical acclaim widespread, and the soundtrack catchy as hell, but I have always avoided it. More poignantly, I wanted to avoid it. I can’t remember where I was when it came out, but even after it came out on video (long before the days of DVD and video downloads) I still avoided watching it. After I confronted—and accepted—my transgender status, I wanted to watch it even less.

“But it’s a great movie!” my friends told me. Perhaps, but even though I only knew a rough outline of the story, I felt it was unnervingly close to something I had experienced. No, I’d never been a drag queen, nor traveled through the Australian Outback, but still, I didn’t want to be amused by these frocks and outlandish make-up. However, watching the documentary (at around 35,000 feet, somewhere over the Indian Ocean), I felt strangely drawn to it.

Priscilla is the story of three drag queens who travel from the relative comfort of Sydney, through the Outback, to Alice Springs, on a bus they nickname “Priscilla”. Yet even the bright lights of Sydney in the early 1990s were hardly gay-, drag-, or trans-friendly. As they continue through the Australian heartland towards the center of the country and Alice Springs, they experience the predictable discrimination and bigotry that anyone within LGBT circles knows only too well. All this was clear from the documentary, but the narration from Terrence Stamp (one off the three main characters) along with insights and memories from everyone else, made for a fascinating and touching retrospective. “Maybe it’s time I did watch the movie,” I mused as one of the cabin crew took my food tray away.

On arrival in Melbourne, I was met by my dear friend James. I first met James four years ago—on my last trip here—when I stayed in the B&B he ran with his then partner. We never lost touch, and reconnected again twice on his subsequent visits to New York; the first one being therapy after his partner of almost 30 years walked off with a younger guy. We’ve since become firm friends and I knew it was going to be wonderful to spend a couple of weeks with him again; not least as we both enjoy a good whine over wine.

The next day I told James about the documentary.

“I’ve got the original film on DVD if you want to watch it this evening,” he said. “You’ll love some of the scenery as it was shot near Broken Hill, not far away from here.” (This ‘not far’ being about an eight-hour drive.) “And besides, you are going to Alice Springs too.”

I’d almost forgotten that comparison. I was indeed heading to Alice a week or so later—not on a beaten-up bus, but on a rather more luxurious train with free-flowing wine and gourmet food. For sure I would also be experiencing some of the sights that were seen on the movie; a heartland with stunning yet barren landscapes and non-existent rainfall. I knew the timeless heritage would also be there; an inner soul that many visitors find solace in, and most other countries simply don’t have. Visitors often do a day / night trip to Uluru (the former Ayer’s Rock); either seeking spiritual enlightenment that the history there bestows, or just appreciating the beauty of a big red rock plonked dead-center within the enormity of nothing. Sitting on the sofa in James’ cottage in Melbourne, maybe the time was now right to exorcise a few transcendent demons of my own. He put the disc in the machine and pressed play.

What I saw wasn’t me, but I knew that already. Still it affected me.

By the end credits I was sniffling, then when D asked me what I thought of it, I started bawling. I cried like a baby; cried like I haven’t done for years.

“What’s wrong?” D asked, giving me a hug, “tell me.”

“It’s too close…” I spluttered, “just too close.” But the crying didn’t stop.

In the days that followed, I tried to analyze my feelings more. Why did this movie hit so hard to home, when in fact were more differences than similarities? Weren’t there? I’ve never quite understood the connection between gay culture and drag queens but it wasn’t that. I’d never aligned myself within either of those camps, and regardless off me having more gay friends now than in my earlier years, I don’t put that down to being trans. Yes, I could understand much of the ignorance and bigotry that the girls on the bus were put through, yet their own modus operandi was far more in your face than I ever pursued or advocated within my own transition. The only empathic streak I found was at the end of the film, when Bernadette (perhaps) found love in the bus repair guy. This wasn’t a head-over-heels finding of a soulmate, more the appreciation that finding love as a transgender person is often one of compromise. Was this a man she actually loved, or was she just accepting the rare love that someone else had for her? Maybe this thread at the end of the film was the one that resonated the most.

Still I don’t have answers to all those questions I asked myself, and why I had put off watching this movie for so long, but maybe the fact that I accepted the questions themselves is more important than finding any resolutions. As I continue my own Australian journey on to Alice Springs in a few days’ time, perhaps the scorched earth of the Red Center will ground me still further. Regardless, my own inner acceptance seems to have broadened in ways that I hadn’t expected from watching 90 minutes of celluloid, 20 years on.

Reconnections

Entry #3 of an occasional journal of thoughts, experiences and perceptions during a trip from New York, through Doha to Dubai and then on to Australia.

Dubai, United Arab Emirates

The two days in Doha flew by, and the unexpectedly cold wind that had dominated my second day there subsided enough for some pool time on the morning I left. But even though it was a beachside hotel, the waters of the Arabian Gulf were far too chilly for a dip; I’d forgotten that winter doesn’t only happen in New York.

I’d also forgotten that the vast majority of staff in the major hotels are not local at all; mostly they are from the Indian subcontinent, the Philippines, and other parts of Asia. Maybe that fact is the reason for the high level of service that I find so welcome here. Yet the overwhelming presence of overseas workers leads to the bizarre situation that any local Qatari person usually has to speak English—not Arabic—in hotels and restaurants, even in their own country. I imagine that’s rarely a problem as most have been educated overseas anyway. Yet it was interesting to see the binary colors of white dishdashes and black abayas around the hotel lobby and restaurants; if only to remind me that I was a visitor in a very different country to both the one I grew up in or live in now.

I wondered about peoples’ stories. Most of the (I presumed) local women I saw were dressed in black from head to toe in clearly functional if not very flattering style—which is actually the whole point of them. I found it hard to imagine having to present myself in such a way. I suppose I lived behind my own type of anonymous veil during parts of my transition, but that was just logged over a few years, not a whole lifetime. As someone who loves clothes (and shopping for them) I have no idea what it would be like to only exit the house when dressed in such a way. I suppose Qatari women can dress nicely when at home, but to me, half the point of dressing up is so that others can see. But such is the fundamental difference in strict Muslim culture: women dress so anonymously and unflatteringly to prevent temptation to other men. While I can maybe understand the ludicrous premise of this hundreds of years ago, surely Arabic culture has advanced from this base position in the centuries since.

The more I wondered about the women under the abayas, the more I started to consider the horrific ordeal that many will have been put through: Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). That this is still euphemistically called “female circumcision” makes it even more abhorrent. Searching for parallels, I could find none whatsoever to the SRS procedure that I have been through. Every surgeon qualified for SRS wants to maintain as much sensitivity as possible, not remove it as a way to “control my sexuality” as is the supposed raison d’etre for FGM. Countless generations on, women in the Middle East continue to be butchered in this way.

My own transition is so complete that there are very few friends who have not met me as a woman. Geography dictates that I’ve not been able to physically catch up with everyone around the world on my friend rolodex, but this trip to Dubai would mean that two more old friends of mine would soon be crossed off that list.

I’ve known T&V since the late 80s and I was a DJ working in Abu Dhabi. In fact, I knew them very well as individuals before I knew them as a couple; she a teacher in one of the international schools, he a DJ on the local English language radio station. She came into my club on one of her first days in the city (it was club policy to get the expatriate girls used to the freestyle attraction of Ladies Night as soon as possible—the more fresh meat the better) while he filled in for me in the DJ booth when I had a night off. I got on very well them both but it was still quite a surprise to me that some years later (long after I had left Abu Dhabi) they told me that they had become an item. I hadn’t anticipated that they would ever be a couple, but the more I considered it, the more I felt their yin and yang synced. Now together for 25 years and with two lovely children, I almost feel like I was partially responsible for their matchmaking.

They came to see me in New York when I was in the early stages of transition—not that I realized I was transitioning at that time. Back then I was cross-dressing on occasion, mostly to attend weekly parties for the transgender community—not that I realized I was within that demographic either. I think I was probably shaping my eyebrows and waxing my legs at that time, but hormone therapy, physical changes and, most importantly, my own self-realization was some years away.

Like everyone else on my friend list, I sent them The Announcement about my gender flux and new self once I was permanently in Nicky mode, and they were (like most, but not all others) very supportive. Surprised, yes, but T sent me a refreshingly honest email of validation soon afterwards, which I also included in Tea and Transition. This trip was the first time to meet them face to face, as me, the woman. He will be collecting me from the airport and although I know our friendship is beyond any of this, I still wonder about the first impressions of those who knew me before but re-meet me in a whole new way. Now, as I fly over the borders of the UAE and see the giant Burj Khalifa skyscraper on the waterfront, I am truly looking forward to reconnecting. Old friends, with a renewed lightness of spirit.

* * *

I had prepared myself for that moment when I pass through customs, wheeling my baggage trolley into the outside world and that he’d be there with the same air of nonchalance that is his hallmark. I approached the moment with some nervousness but was deflated somewhat when I didn’t see him. I knew I’d still recognize him, but had I come out of the wrong door or been blinded by the Middle Eastern sun? I wandered around the meet & greet while others were met and greeted. Just a couple of minutes later, I saw him walking briskly from the car park towards me, accompanied by his 12-year old son. I looked at him and he seemed to look through me, searching for someone else. Then as I walked towards him, he recognized me.

“Hello!” he said, “that was good timing… Give me a hug!”

“I wasn’t sure if I was in the right place,” I countered, not wanting to bring up the matter that I’d been there a few minutes already. I remember some years ago when I was collecting my Mum from a long-distance flight somewhere that I’d been late arriving at the airport—something I never wanted to repeat.

“This is Rod, by the way,” introducing his son.

“Hello Rod, I’m Nicky.”

“Ooh, haven’t you got a soft voice now,” father T added.

From someone who still works with his voice and to someone else who has worked on voice as part of my transition, that was one of the nicest things I could hear.

Later on, I asked him if he had been nervous meeting the new-ish me.

“Um, no, not really,” he mused, “but I was very curious.”

His wife, V, arrived home slightly later than we did, but on seeing me, her broad beam of welcome came ahead of hearing her amazement-laden, still thick, Scottish accent.

“Look at you!” she exclaimed.

And that was the point: it was still a surprise to others from my past life meeting me anew, even though I’d been me—and this way—for several years already. But it didn’t take long for us to be talking clothes, and fashion, and how men just don’t get it.

That evening, they threw a barbeque. It wasn’t exactly in my honor, but they did want me to meet some of their friends. That was when V announced her biggest concern.

“We fine with all your gender stuff, but we have no idea to cope with a vegetarian!”

And that summed up well what our friendship was all about, still. It didn’t matter about differences, and we could exchange stories and laugh about how we all got to the respective points that we have. Gender, of course, was a topic to discuss, but ultimately immaterial.

* * *

Over the next five days, it was not only a joy to spend time with them, but also with their kids. That’s something that seems to happen particularly naturally to me these days. As a woman, I tend to bond easily with children, and really enjoy spending time with them. OK, only the nice ones of course, but this was never particularly easy or enjoyable for me as a man. Another one of the surprises in self that I didn’t see coming.

I think it took them more than a couple of days to become totally comfortable with me as I am (and there were a few pronoun and past-name mishaps along the way) but I accept that’s simply the way it is when you knew someone for so long in a different gender. My old news was still new to them.

I again enjoyed the reverse sexism that is Ladies Night (three free drinks at the Q43 bar) in Dubai, and the conflicts of Arabic culture that had expressed themselves to me in Doha were less evident in the more multi-cultural metropolis that is Dubai. I knew that there was sexism beyond the Ladies Night phenomenon, and genderism too. I had hoped to have some time being interviewed on T’s drive-time radio program but it wasn’t going to happen.

“I’ve really tried to think how we could package it in such a way to do something on air,” he said over a glass of wine one evening, “but I really can’t. It is still against the law to be gay here…” and then anticipating my interjection added, “not that is the same thing as you have been through, but we simply can’t talk about religion, politics, or sex on air—and you could be misconstrued as the latter. In fact, I don’t even think there is a word for ‘transgender’ in Arabic.”

Reluctantly, I accepted that reality. However, bizarrely, during my stay there, the ruling sheikh announced two key, newsworthy, and totally unexpected government positions: a minister of happiness, and one of tolerance. I wondered whether, for the countless number of gay Arabic men who cannot express their true selves in public, this could even be the first tentative step in wider acceptance. If so, then it will still be many years away, and for transgender individuals even longer, but maybe the seed is now sown. Although I only got to speak to a few ex-pats on this stay and explain some of the factors that being transgender means, perhaps next time, the tentacles of acceptance and tolerance might yet be able to reach further. Perhaps the unforgiving, un-nurturing and barren sand-scape that dominates the lands of Arabia can yet foster growth; not just in the skyscrapers of Dubai, but in a deeper understanding.

Next stop, Australia.

Middle Eastern contrasts

Entry #2 of an occasional journal of thoughts, experiences and perceptions during a trip from New York, through Doha to Dubai and then on to Australia.

Doha, Qatar.

I honestly can’t remember if I have been to this city before, but even if I had, then it would have been 20+ years ago and we have both changed radically since then. Skyscrapers dominate the landscape and the only reminders that this is an Arabian country are the dhows in the bay, and the regularity of seeing men in perfectly laundered white dishdashes and their accompanying spouses covered in head to toe black. There are degrees of cover up though; from simple head scarf to total anonymity. I supposed those degrees of privacy made it slightly better, if only for the ladies who could at lease see where they were walking.

So, being a woman, do I thus equate with those dressed in black, albeit that they are from a completely different culture and background? I don’t think that connection is a prerequisite for my gender, though there are accepted connections. For instance, when I had a spa treatment earlier that evening, the area I used was exclusively for–and the treatments given by–women. But that is generally how I prefer it anyway.

I wanted to maximize the less than 48 hours I’d have in this city, so after that slightly self-indulgent spa treatment (which felt so good after a 12 hour flight) I took a taxi into another part of Doha, which I wanted to be the focus of my evening entertainment. I knew this place would remind me further of the contrasts that this city has—that every city has–although these contradictions seem more amplified in parts of the Middle East.

‘Crystal’, at the glitzy W hotel, is one of the club hotspots in Doha. Costly entry is limited to membership, and even then, mostly for couples and foreigners. But it was Ladies Night, and so I just flashed my passport, batted my eyes as the visiting blonde from New York, and was swept in behind the velvet rope. I was slightly nervous that my LBD might have been too much above the knee, but matching it with a stylish cream blazer added the sophistication that I wanted to exude.

Inside, the music was international and a mix of current house tracks and grittier urban selections. The guests were mostly 20s and 30s men of Arabic descent (though Western dressed), along with a smattering of women of Middle Eastern origin, and a few Europeans. I was one of only a handful of blondes and I could see attention follow me as I scoped out the room. One guy (who introduced himself as an Egyptian guy called, naturally, Mohammed) swooped in and offered to get me a drink, but I wanted to see what else was going on first. Besides, Ladies Night is one of those outrageously sexist evenings that often happens in Gulf countries: ply the ladies with free drinks, then the men will follow—and buy them more. Back in my male times in the Gulf 20 years ago, this always seemed so unfair. This time I had no complaints. What surprised me more about the practicalities of these drinks however, was that unlike New York Happy Hour “well drinks” (unbranded cheap liquor that is very conducive to hangovers) the default gin and vodka here was top notch brands like Tanqueray and Grey Goose. I stuck with my gin and tonics and got more into the groove as the Gordon’s found its way into my rhythm buds.

The atmosphere also made it seem like I visiting a club from a different era. Yes the music was all current, but this club was smokey. Not as bad as the the smoke-filled dens of the 80s that I used to visit where you really could cut the atmosphere with an iron-lung, but this was still a throwback to a different era. As a fervent non-smoker it gives me renewed pleasure visiting bars and clubs around the world where smoke has now been banished, but there is still a sense of rightness entering a bar where people are smoking. Maybe that’s simply the familiarity I feel having worked so many places like that in the 80s and 90s.

I drifted between the two bar areas in the club, sizing up the occupants but trying not to make definitive eye-contact. There didn’t seem anybody there that I felt overly attracted to, and besides, I was more interested in soaking up some Mark Ronson and David Guetta than anything more physical. I still find it curious that my musical tastes have gone full-circle with my own transition: from club DJ (guy), to indie chick (or guy initially), and back to house music maven. Not that I spurn alternative tracks these days–far from it–but the love of hearing (and moving) to club tracks has never been stronger in me.

Mohammed found me again, and from what I could gather, he’d racked up a tally greater than my three gin tonics. But he was actually quite fun to talk to (a much as you can talk to anyone clearly above 110 decibels) and that he found me attractive stroked my ego nicely too—as did his wandering hands. He touched me and I found myself drawn to the sense of adventure that meeting someone in a club imbues. The forth gin tonic helped too. We started making out, and I remembered my friend Portia’s voice in head: “good kissers are hard to find.” Seemed like I had found one. In fact, even though he was a VIP member in the club, one of the bouncers actually told him to tone his affections down a tad. What are the rules for kissing in Qatari clubs—I had no idea.

We left, together, and although I repeatedly told him that he wasn’t coming back to my hotel, he never stopped asked me. (I was already looking forward to the hotel breakfast buffet, some pool time, and a tennis lesson the next day, and so I had no intention of letting that agenda go off-kilter; regardless of how well he used his tongue.) Then, he told me we could go to his place; which initially sounded like a good plan but then headed south. Or I think more accurately, west, as the taxi ventured further out of the city center. I suddenly started to sober up. The taxi went down some side streets, and some back streets. There was not a sole around.

At least it was a residential area but his apartment building was not the classy number I had anticipated. When he opened the door all I saw was a basic living room with two basic beds on each side. Also, it was not empty. There was (I was told) his cousin and presumably his cousin’s girlfriend, though she could have been a hooker for all I knew. This was going downhill fast, and all the sweet talk (and sweet kisses) in the taxi on the way there immediately counted for nothing. He started kissing me again.

“No,” I said, and then a much firmer “NO”. Scenes from ‘Law & Order: SVU” flashed through my mind; where officers asked rape victims whether they had made their refusal clear. I didn’t feel physically threatened in such a way but I knew I had to leave, and leave soon. I ran out of the apartment building while Mohammed followed behind. On the street I was quite a distance from the main road. Well I assumed I was; I had no idea what direction it would be anyway. 2.30am, and I was lost in the backstreets of a city I didn’t know with not a soul (or a taxi) in sight. Panic. Huge panic.

Mohammed caught up to me and tried to comfort me, initially with his arms around me, then his tongue, and after those options didn’t work, with words.

“I’m scared, I’m scared…” was all I could say.

“Don’t worry,” he said with intended reassurance, “I am with you.” Not a great consolation as this was the very cause of my anxiety, but still it seemed to have an effect. I took a deep breath and rested my head on his shoulders. A hint of calm returned. He held my hand and we walked towards the main road. On the horizon I saw a taxi approaching and my adrenaline level dropped further. The car stopped and we got in together. I told him he needn’t accompany me but he insisted. I supposed that was a mix of male hierarchy which dominates this country, but I knew that he still had plans on my underwear, despite me making it clear that he wasn’t getting access to that or my hotel that night. Just an hour or so earlier I really wanted him, now I just wanted to be away from him.

When we arrived at the hotel, and I saw the security guard at the entrance, I breathed a huge sigh of relief. Not that I had felt positively threatened over the past few hours, but there was a singular reassurance in seeing a man in a uniform who I knew would represent my interests. Mohammed made one last play to stay, but even though a hint of appeal had returned to my sexual psyche, I refused. But so did he refuse to give me his mobile number or email or any other contact information. That spoke volumes about his deeper intentions. I felt further vindicated. One last kiss (he was still a good kisser) and I jumped out of the taxi, and walked into the hotel lobby, not even glancing behind.

My heels clacked on the polished marble, and the night staff welcomed me warmly as I made my way to my room. My bed was soft and welcoming. I was alone, but for all the high-jinx adventures of the past hours, that suited me well. Had I been reckless? Yes. I had been caught up in an exotic moment that had tipped into an erotic one. I knew the outcomes could have been so much worse, and I chastised myself for letting myself go in such a way. But regardless of where we are in the world, don’t we all want to feel loved, or needed, or just wanted?

As sleep drew in, and the luxurious fabrics of the room comforted me, I heard echoes of the nighttime call to prayer outside.

An Exercise in Perception

Entry #1 of an occasional journal of thoughts, experiences and perceptions during a trip from New York, through Doha to Dubai and then on to Australia.

The next week will be an interesting exercise in perception. I am heading to Doha for two days, and then Dubai for five. (OK, and after that, Australia for 3  weeks, but let’s not brag.) Although I have spent a lot of time in the Middle East in the past, this will be the first occasion that I have been there as a woman. You could argue that neither city is particularly Arabic (Dubai in particular)–or at least they are rather more Westernized than many other cities around the Gulf–but still I will be in a place where women are viewed, treated, and accepted differently. So how will I be perceived in these places, and will I see them in a different way to how I did before?

So over the next week or two or three, I will be keeping a mini journal which I will be posting here and also on Facebook; to gauge my own opinions of how I feel, along with any unexpected events or strange revelations. Differing notions of acceptance for me and those around me.

Day #1… Leaving New York

Departing this city is one that I always herald with mixed emotions. I often feel a need to leave every few months, if only to escape the craziness of it—and yet that same craziness draws me back. The extra incentive to leave at this time of year is also the weather. February in New York City is the month that most natives dislike the most. We hibernate, bitch about the weather, and wait for spring to arrive. In fact, this year to date has been incredibly mild (with the exception of the second biggest snowstorm ever) and the first week of February looks to continue that trend—not that I could have predicted that when I booked this flight last summer.

All New Yorkers love New York—that is part of the prerequisite of being who we are—and although those born here might argue that birthright is the sole qualification to be titled a New Yorker, I still feel that that is who I am; an immigrant, yes, but we all are.

So taking a shabby car-service taxi from my apartment to JFK, struggling through lines of traffic, and looking out at the frankly nondescript journey from Astoria to the airport, I could see both sides of the coin. Yes, I was ready to leave, yet I knew the inescapable (and often undefinable) fact was that I still love this city. The remnants of dirty snow on the sidewalks, trees that looked frankly depressing having shed their leaves, and the potholes in the road that made the oversprung town car bounce, still didn’t make me want to refute my self-proclaimed citizenship of this city. Even so, it will be rather nice to be in a swimsuit by the pool in a day or two…

A Question of Belief

I suppose we all have different ways of accepting who we are. For me, it took many years to accept that I am transgender, and even longer to say it to anyone else. When I moved into my current apartment, in Queens, I was still portraying myself as a man. How deeply I was male I really don’t know, but outwardly to the landlords and the neighbors I was a man. In the first few months that I presented as female, it undoubtedly confused the same landlords and neighbors. I think it amused others on the same block too as I was then subject to the sort of verbal abuse that every trans person gets.

I live in a quite traditional area of Queens — as much as anything is traditional in this city of immigrants, of which I am unashamedly one. So it’s quite normal that on one side of my apartment there is a family from South America (though I’ve never quite established which country it is. It never mattered as we don’t talk much to each other though always exchange a friendly greeting) where as on the other side is a family of Italian Americans spanning three generations. One door further down the block an older couple, also Italian Americans, who I guess must be in their 80s now.

In the early days of being Nicky, I used to hope that I wouldn’t see any of my neighbors when leaving the house to avoid any awkward eye contact. It didn’t always work. The male half of the old couple used to turn away when he saw me; presumably so he wouldn’t have to see the weird person who used to be a man. The three-generational didn’t seem much more accommodating either; but how is one supposed to greet someone who is now presenting completely differently? Perhaps the best way is to do nothing at all. Maybe that’s what I would have done too.

The biggest surprise in breaking the ice (the ice that I felt was there anyway) came from the most unlikely source: the elder grandmother of the three-generational family. I was out tending the small patch of garden outside the house when she came over for a chat.

“The flowers are looking good! I’m Kathy by the way — what’s your name?”

“Nicky,” I replied. “People call me Nicky”.

“It’s nice to meet you, Nicky” she said. And I honestly felt the same.

In the following years the rapprochement became easier, though still glacial at times. I would hardly talk with the youngest of the three generations (three testosterone-filled boys) and I felt they were probably sniggering at the ‘guy in a dress’ behind my back. And still the older guy turned away when I was walking by. Then, the grandmother of the generational family died. I was truly saddened, not only because she had been the one who had reached out with her own olive branch, but also because she had since become a friend. So I was very much honored when the family asked me if I’d like to come to the funeral. At that point, I could not have imagined a bigger level of acceptance. Although I couldn’t make it to the service, I did go to the wake at the funeral home afterwards. I chatted with the other two generations with warmth and respect, in fact one of the younger kids even started shedding a tear when I asked him about fond memories of his grandma.

The next big step happened around the time of the launch of my book, Tea and Transition. My mother had come over for the launch event, and when we were waiting on the stoop for the taxi to arrive, she started chatting with the neighbors, who were also on their stoop. She got on with them like a house on fire, which again amazed me — though maybe it shouldn’t have, as my mother will talk to anyone at any time. Often she can rub people up the wrong way, but here she was among new found friends. I don’t think it was intentional as such, but I feel that her being here, by my side, for the book launch further legitimized me as a woman in the eyes of my neighbors. Since then, things have gone full circle from the early days. Now I actually hope to see any of that family on their stoop so I can see how they are doing and exchange a few words. I saw the father popping into a bar round the corner last week, and he even asked me in for a drink. I didn’t go, but I will do one day.

However the latest, and maybe the biggest step happened this afternoon. The older Italian couple have started talking to me again, and he doesn’t turn away when I walk by, but this time he stopped me for a chat. I was admiring his flowers and he asked me about my book.

“I remember talking with you when you moved in,” he said. “You were a man.”

“Yes, that’s right” I replied, ignoring the specifics of when I actually might have been a man or ‘become’ a woman.

“Now you are a woman,” he continued. “So much work you have done… operations and so on.”

“Yes,” I said, “but I am happy. Very much at peace. The sense of calm I have is wonderful.”

“I am a very Roman Catholic person,” he added. I had assumed this, as he had always been a key and visible part of events at the local church, but it also made me have some concerns about what he was about to add.

“This is a miracle.”

I didn’t see that coming.

“God wanted you this way. You were born another way, but God wanted you this way. It’s a miracle.”

I felt incredibly humbled as I am not in any way a miracle, but in his mind — in his belief and in his faith — this was his particular way of dealing with something that he had never expected from the neighbor two doors down. For me, I just felt hugely gratified that another gap of misunderstanding had been broached. Perhaps now I could get more gardening tips from him again too — he had given me one or two ideas back in the ‘old days’ but those dried up with my womanhood. Now I feel the ground might be fertile enough for us to continue.

Faith is many things to many people, religion likewise. Our beliefs drive us forward in many and diverse ways. They can also cause friction, wars, and distrust that may linger for countless generations. But not on my block. New York is known to be a melting pot of countless cultures and religions but it still has many divisions. Not on my block. The obstacles to acceptance that I felt in my early transitional days when I left my apartment have gone. Those around me may never fully understand what being transgender is all about — that often confuses me too — but it doesn’t matter to them anymore. Nor me, either.

That is my block.

Who Plays the Transgender Role?

When musing over what could happen next for Tea and Transition, one of the questions that friends ask is: “who would you like to play you in the movie?” It’s with a little surprise from me when asked, and incredulity from them when I reply: “well, me, of course!” I’m not offended that they are not aware of my thespian tendencies, as it has been several decades since I trod the boards last, and they probably didn’t know of that event anyway. I certainly thought my playing of attendant #1 in a school play production of The Merchant Of Venice was Oscar-worthy. Or it might have been tree #2 in a background scene, after all the better roles had been taken. Yet the question that those friends ask is a valid one as it does raise one of the other trans topics du jour: should transgender roles only be played by transgender actors?

There was news from British media this week that the long-running soap-series EastEnders would have a transgender character in it (the first in its 30 year run) and that the role would be played by a transgender actor. Firstly, congrats to Riley Carter Millington for landing the job — and to the writers and producers for including such a part. It is always welcome that trans stories are included within mainstream media, if only to broaden the cultural conversation. I’m sure that Riley will do a terrific job, but would it have been appropriate to have a non-transgender actor playing this role? This is a subject that can get the panties of many trans-activists in a wad (knickers in a twist if I am resorting to British colloquialism) as it is often felt that the best way to support the trans community is to give trans jobs to trans characters. I disagree.

I remember watching Felicity Huffman give an excellent performance in the 2005 movie Transamerica and I didn’t consider the part less authentic just because the actor wasn’t transgender herself. Though, relevant or not, that was also the time when I had yet to identify that I myself was trans. The performance that Jeffrey Tambor gave in Transparent was first rate even though I still think that series was marred by a gamut of other gender and sexuality issues that detracted from the transgender issue itself. There were other ‘real life’ transgender characters in that series, and I believe Jill Solloway actively encourages and promotes transgender talent within the production process. Great, that’s definitely to be valued, though it doesn’t mean that all trans characters have to be played by trans actors.

The point is, that to get the message across about being transgender and for the audience to empathize with that character is more important than filling the role with that gender-specific person. Sure, the part should be considered for a trans actor first, but let’s not get bogged down in political correctness if there might be an actor who could portray the role better and get that message across to a wider audience. I hope a subsequent step will be to create a trans role that the viewing public will actually NOT like. Huh?

It took Hollywood a while to create black villains, and I can’t think of many gay baddies within the industry either (time for the next Bond megalomaniac baddy to be gay?), so I trust there will be a time when we can have a transgender character in a key role that will meet a gloriously untimely end — not because they are trans but because their character was the villain. This is a long way off, and society needs to get to the point of comfort where we don’t actually think of transgender people as transgender people anymore, just as people people. One day, one day…

So yes, if I can, and if my skills are up to scratch, I’d still like to play myself if and when Tea and Transition makes it to the big screen. Oh, and for the role of my mum? Dame Judi Dench. Call me, that part is yours.

The Courage in Being Transgender

One of the biggest surprises to me when I saw Caitlyn Jenner accept the Arthur Ashe Courage Award was how eloquently she spoke. A few more “we” references as opposed to “they” ones when talking about transgender people would have been wiser, but she was still standing up for the trans community. These are baby steps for the 65 year old after all.

As cynics continue to question Jenner’s motives and muse over how self-serving they are, others in America wonder whether a celebrity outing herself as trans is the pinnacle of being brave. With an army of stylists at her coattails (or Versace dress in this case), an upcoming TV show to promote, and Hollywood feeding on anything transgender as the latest media trend, the concept of Caitlyn’s bravery is cushioned beyond reality.

Rightly, Jenner raised the huge problem of kids being bullied as they come to terms with their own genders, though her comments come from advisors, not through experience in meeting those people. By her own admission, she had not met anyone else trans until earlier this year. The transgender person you meet at school, work, or on the street is unlikely to have the same glamour quotient as Caitlyn, didn’t arrive to work in a black-windowed SUV, and didn’t have the services of her plastic surgeon—although that could be an arguable blessing.

Many times throughout my own transition people called me brave. I often felt confused and a shade embarrassed when I heard that. I never felt brave, not in any traditional sense, as I was just being myself. For others it requires incredible fortitude, perhaps in the process of self-determination, or in the ability to act upon that sense of identity. Some, sadly, will never be able to get to the stage they desire, whatever stage that is and however deeply they wish to change. Culture, religion and society all play parts in a person’s ability to transition, fear of being ostracized from friends or family is a very real concern too.

A further aspect of bravery is negotiating hardship in getting to where you know you belong, or where you need to be. Arthur Ashe was the standard bearer for that. Last year’s winner of Ashe’s award, Michael Sam, must have run through a gamut of abuse from a male-centric sport as he became the first publicly gay player to be drafted into the NFL. I’m sure he still does. Coming out winner over a dreadful bone marrow disease made Robin Roberts a worthy recipient of the award the previous year. Billie Jean King, Muhammad Ali, and some lesser known sporting stars have also received the accolade of the Arthur Ashe award. Caitlyn Jenner receiving that same award strikes a nerve of incredulity in many people—me included.

I welcome that her transition has broadened the dialogue and allowed America to talk about a subject that before was too often below the radar. However speaking as one of the countless other transgender people, we are not Caitlyns, and her celebrity support is harder to assimilate within the rank and file.

The concept of one person being braver than another—especially when in award ceremonies—is somewhat fatuous, though I hope that ESPN and its Disney parent company have not just highlighted Jenner’s journey as a way to attach their own train to the transgender bandwagon.

Taking the T out of LGBT

It has taken time, but now the public has more appreciation for what the T in LGBT stands for. They may still have some way to go in understanding what it actually means to be transgender, however considerable progress has been made. We can partly thank Caitlyn Jenner for expanding that conversation and allowing the T to be equally relevant in the line up of letters. Yet I would argue that the T doesn’t belong there at all.

The L, G, and B are about sexual identity; the T is about gender. Lumping the four initials together only enhances the misperception that they are interchangeable terms. They are not.

I am a transgender woman. In my 40s I stated recognizing feminine feelings that I couldn’t ignore—but I was still attracted to women. I was questioning my gender yet my sexuality remained unchanged. Only later in my transition did my sexuality change in tandem with my gender—like orbiting planets that never meet. However the sexuality of transgender people (which may or not change) is the most irrelevant factor in our transitions. We are not coming to terms with being attracted to same sex or different sex people, it is the correctness of our assigned gender that we are figuring out.

Of course I admire and respect lesbian and gay campaigners over the years who have laid the groundwork for the level of acceptance that there is now, but I am neither gay nor lesbian. I am a straight woman—with a past.

As part of an often discriminated against sector of society, there is solace, appeal, and leverage in being part of a group. Not, however, if the alignment blurs the picture. I would gladly be part of an ‘I hate kale’ group (very easily in fact), though I wouldn’t be comfortable in an ‘I hate fruits and vegetables’ conglomerate if that was the only other option. I’m sure I’d be reassured that others disliked different vegetables, though to be assumed a fruit hater would be skewing my association and not helping the public perception that it really is OK to dislike kale. (I am actually quite fond of broccoli.)

Does it matter? Perhaps the route to self-acceptance is relevant. I accepted the unexpected truth about myself, transitioned, and now live my life as the woman I am. In that respect, I am complete, done. I appreciate that I will always be a transgender woman but that’s no reason to wave a flag about it to remind me of my gender past. It was an anomaly which was corrected; bigger than removing a scar, not as invasive as a bone marrow transplant. My sexuality, meanwhile, is irrelevant.

Unlike Groucho Marx, I am happy to be part of a club that has me as a member. I go to an LGBT health clinic in New York, I advocate LGBT causes, and I visit LGBT-friendly venues, so thus I am part of the LGBT community. I certainly have plenty of gay friends (possibly more than if I were not transgender) and just like those people, I had no choice in being what I am.

Now is the time to clearly separate and differentiate gender and sexuality: transgender understanding can advance better by severing the suffix from LGB. And to be clear, I would be delighted to be part of the TKH community—Transgender Kale Haters.

Call me woman

After Caitlyn Jenner unveiled herself in lingerie for Vanity Fair, reaction has predominantly fallen into two camps: visible support for her as you would earthquake victims in faraway lands (lest you appear heartless), or label her as sassy for showing too much leg. Cut through the media sensationalism and celebrities falling over themselves to support her, and I’m struggling to find the voice of reason.

Above and beyond my own transition, I have always tried to clarify one of the biggest misunderstandings about being transgender: that sexuality and gender definition are two distinctly different things. And so a provocative image of Jenner in a bustier for a magazine front cover has done nothing to enhance the public perception of those differences. We don’t need to come across as frumpy, but this was a few inches of skin too far. Caitlyn herself must be delighted with the images as she looks stunning, yet for the rest of us trying to explain that transgender women shouldn’t be perceived as vampish, it was a retrograde step.

There is also a growing presumption that we need to re-write history as a consequence of Jenner’s transition. I appreciate that pronouns are tricky (I still get friends and relations calling me “he” by mistake, even though I have been “she” for several years) but the things that I did as a man were done in that gender. That past I cannot change. Should the medals that Jenner won as Bruce now be revised as successes for Caitlyn? No, Bruce won those accolades, not Caitlyn. There are many things that I’d have preferred to have done with the benefit of hindsight as a woman in my 20s or 30s but I can’t—I was a man then.

This redefinition seems to be growing into other areas too. In Texas and Tennessee a debate has started regarding changing street names celebrating Bruce Jenner—should these be updated with her new name? This is slightly more acceptable as the renaming is supportive of her transition though doubtless there will be detractors to argue that the names should stay, or even changed to something else altogether. Thus, there needs to be a balance between supporting who Jenner is now and the desire to change the facts to fit with our revised sensibilities.

I also see an unnecessary backlash. I have read of the premise that transgender women are less female because we didn’t grow up with vaginas. (New York Times June 6th, 2015 “What Makes A Woman” by Elinor Burkett). There, the author claims that feminists and transgender activists are on some sort of collision course. I refute that.

To be clear, I wasn’t a suffragette in 1920s Britain fighting for equal voting rights, nor was I a part of the feminist movement in 1960s America. Does that negate my sense of self that I am a woman? Try telling a black activist that they are somehow ‘less black’ because they didn’t march from Selma to Montgomery and you’d get laughed out of town. And rightly so.

I know I was not born the way I am now, but just because I didn’t go through puberty as a 16 year old girl, or deal with monthly reminders from my updated body, or suffer gender-based discrimination in the workplace, doesn’t make me any less able to call myself a woman. I accept that I have fewer accrued experiences in my true gender but that doesn’t lessen their worth. So, please, let’s move away from the “I’m more of a woman than you are” claims—it makes us sound like men.

It is undoubtedly positive that Caitlyn Jenner has revitalized the transgender conversation, and to see a person at peace with themselves as a result of this change is empowering. She has found balance, the rest of us now need to do the same.