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.