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.

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.

Caitlyn: Not My Spokesperson

One of the reoccurring questions I am asked when I’m talking about my book, Tea and Transition, is what effect Caitlyn Jenner has had on transgender awareness — or what do I think about Caitlyn’s transition.

I always preface my answer with support — support for anyone transgender, famous or otherwise, who is dealing with gender confusion or acting upon some sort of transition. None of us asked for this when we were dealt the hand of life, and so to reach a point of self-acceptance followed by any sort of transition is a big deal. Some of us accept it with grace and fortitude, while others are not able to make any outward change because of family, society, religion, or any one of countless other restrictive factors that prevent people from being their true selves. So yes, of course I support Caitlyn Jenner, and am glad that she is finding a deeper level of happiness that had previously eluded her.

Yet I am also trying to figure out why support for Caitlyn from within the transgender community seems more muted than from without. Just because other trans people have been through more hardships than Jenner to get to where they are doesn’t make them — or her — any less trans. Still, I don’t feel close to her at all when watching “I Am Cait” as she explains her own personal difficulties while conversing with either of her two personal stylists or when dithering between wearing one $2,000 dress in her closet or another. Yes, her hardship is to deal with paparazzi-dodging while the rest of us do not, but still that doesn’t lead me to a closer position of empathy.

Reality TV is — by definition — not real. I should not be offended by the appearance of more champagne toasts on the program than discussion of issues of substance — but I am. So far (after four episodes) the series has been shallower than Jenner’s first pool party and if it is to really stimulate dialog then it has to provoke a far edgier conversation than her visiting a trans outreach clinic in her black-windowed SUV. The public is not so foolish to assume that every trans person looks or behaves like Caitlyn, but nor should they assume that she is my spokesperson. She is not. Most worryingly, this seems to be a position that Jenner herself is seeking to adopt, or she has presumed to have taken on already. I think it’s terrific that she has met other trans people from all walks of life and she needs to meet a whole bunch more before she can even hope to understand the situations of others. One relevant point from the most recent show was her tendency to refer to trans people as “them” and not “us”. This organic change will happen in time, but only if she wants it to.

I’ve also been considering the term “community” when it refers to trans people like me. I have met countless trans people over the years and one of the pleasures of my day job is that I get to meet trans folk at all stages of their individual transitions. I thoroughly enjoy that but it doesn’t mean that I want to have tea with them all at every opportunity. Personally, I don’t feel the need to be around other trans people to validate my own position. I choose my friends (trans, cis, and everyone else) because of who they are, not what their history is. To do otherwise would be like hanging with other blondes for the reason of shared hair color. Thus for me personally, the term “trans community” is more a loose fellowship rather than a bonded group.

Returning to the Caitlyn factor, I see some new chatter about whether a Caitlyn Jenner Halloween outfit is appropriate or not (CNN). My initial reaction was that it is totally inappropriate, but then the more I considered it, the more it seemed fair. The costume is not mocking being transgender in itself (though if you added a phallus then it probably would be), nor are countless other costumes that play with role reversal at Halloween (sexy nuns, stripper nurses, etc) seriously irreverent to those lives or professions. It’s a day of silliness and should be accepted as just that. Once Jenner was featured on the cover of Vanity Fair, it was unavoidable that parody would follow, even if it didn’t happen immediately. That is the price of fame, and as such, comes with no refund.

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.

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.