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.

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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.

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.

The Second Coming (Out)

In one week’s time, my book “Tea and Transition” will be hitting the shelves. Actually it will be slightly longer before I get physical books-on-shelves coverage in Barnes & Noble and the independent booksellers but it will be available on the virtual shelves of Amazon.com from that date, and in multiple formats too. Among the stress and worry of getting the logistics working in alignment, there is another strange additional emotion I’m experiencing too. I’m not quite what it is, but I think it’s about losing some of my anonymity. Of course I want the book to be a success, so why should I not feel the excitement that other people say they are feeling about the impending release? I put it down to The Second Coming (Out).

It was about 5 years ago that my day to day life started in female mode. I suppose my transition began some time before that and then continued long afterwards too, but in these last couple of years I have felt simply at one with myself. No other surgery to do, no further name changes to worry about, everything had been completed. I’d had all of the awkward (and not so awkward) conversations with friends and family, and everyone (with one or two exceptions) who I knew in my ‘past life’ accepted me as Nicky, and not the guy who came before me. I even stopped caring as much if people saw me as a transgender woman or a woman woman. People simply knew me as Nicky (or Nicola if I am being formal) whether or not they were aware of my previous incarnation. So my past was behind me. I was complete.

Writing the book almost happened by mistake. It started when I began experiencing emotions and feelings that I knew would never happen again. It began as a journal, something for my own benefit that I could use to remind me of the evolution that I was a part of. And yes, sometimes I didn’t quite know what was going on, it just seemed to happen. I got caught up in my own evolution as a natural part of who I seemed to be and what I appeared to be becoming. It was only after several months that I wondered if these scrawlings could become something larger, though I had no idea if anyone else would like to read them. I still don’t.

Completing the book made me think more about what I had been through, though as the time line stopped around 2 years ago, I was actually somewhat disassociated from what I had written. Now it was all about the editing process, how to polish what I had written, and of course, getting it out as a real, physical book. Although everything really did happen exactly as I described, I viewed it more dispassionately as a project I was seeing through to completion and not a baring of my soul to the media. I was still proud of the book – and I am, immensely – but I hadn’t appreciated that with the promotion and distribution of it, I would need to come out all over again.

Of course I am grateful that I am being asked to write pieces for the media to tie in with the book release, and now I am working with a wonderful publicist, I am hoping those requests will gain momentum so that I can bring my story to a bigger audience. However with that comes the need to explain myself again, to have to go through all the emotions that I felt several years ago, and to talk about a period of my life that is essentially over. I know, I get it, that’s what the whole dang book is about and I truly do want it to be a success! But with that comes the personal reminder that I am a transgender woman after all.

The working title for the book for much of its writing period was “The Woman I Was”. I liked the slight ambiguity of the wording and felt that it reflected the concept that I was probably a woman before I realized it myself. But book experts advised me that such a title would be too confusing and might even imply that I was a woman before and am now a man! Jeez, I didn’t want to have that association! Besides, the link with tea is far more appropriate.

One of the broader aims that I have is that, in time, we can do without labels and definitions. Society is getting there and these days we rarely say the (black) actor, the (lesbian) actress, the (gay) runner – because there is simply no need for those added words. Yet still we tend to say the transgender actress. Not always, but often there seems to be the need to qualify that the actress is a transgender actress. Having said that, how would I like to be introduced if I am giving an interview? The transgender author? I am that and so it does make sense – especially as that is what the book is about.

Still, I return to the flux of now having to come out again. I really hadn’t expected to do that a second time, but maybe this is beyond that. Perhaps this is the true finishing point as I lift the final veil of transparency.

Perceptions… before and after the Bruce Jenner interview

Will America be hanging on the every word of Bruce Jenner this Friday?

No, probably not, but it is one of the biggest profile transgender interviews that will appear in the mainstream media. And that means we have to accept the trashy media talking referring to “gender-bending” (a term that makes most trans people roll their eyes at, I know it does me) within the broader discussion of being trans. So I know I should welcome this discussion on US prime time TV but the court is still out on whether this interview will help a broader understanding about what it means to be transgendered, or if it will marginalize opinion. That all depends on how the interview is conducted (Diane Sawyer is likely to have done a very professional job there) and the sort of answers that Bruce gives.

I have wondered about some of the questions that could crop up during the 2 hour special (whittled down to less than 90 minutes I expect, once advertising breaks and needless repetition is taken into account) and these could be quite helpful in making others understand our situation better. Obvious topics like if he is / will be changing his name, whether he presents as a woman all the time, and so whether “he” or “she” is more appropriate, will be asked, but naturally mainstream America also wants to hear the tabloid edition too: Is he taking hormones and will he be having gender reassignment surgery. Those are the knee-jerk questions that Joe Mainstreet has in mind and it will be interesting to see is Diane Sawyer ventures down this road (she probably has to) and in which case, how Bruce answers.

Those were the questions that people asked of me in my early days of transition and although I didn’t take offense at being asked, I also tried to get the point across that these are extremely personal questions and so basically nobody else’s business! Still, those generally are the first questions that outsiders have, and so perhaps maybe this key interview will help get that message across that those topics are rather too intrusive – especially at this stage of a transition.

It certainly can’t be easy transitioning so much in the public eye and you have to empathize with Bruce in that respect. Everything he does in becoming a she is under intense scrutiny, and while you might shrug that off as being all part of the Circus Kardashian Roadshow, the comments and criticism of being so much under the media microscope will be significantly tougher to absorb for Bruce. Some will really hurt. Yes he has got a very sympathetic ear with Diane Sawyer and as such he will be able to control the interview on his terms along with having a platform to express his wishes and concerns, but I suspect that this will just be the first of many inquisitions from the media. Some will be intrusive (that happened as soon as news of some sort of transition came out) but I can only hope that others will be more sympathetic and might just help public perception of what a transgender person has to go through.

Whether this interview will help the overall acceptance and understanding of matters transgender, or whether it will be seen as a side shoot of Kardashian craziness has yet to be seen. I guess we’ll know that answer by 10.00pm this Friday.

A Gender-Neutral Glossary (c/o the New York Times)

This is quite an interesting list of definitions. The article from the NY Times doesn’t state the origin of the list, other than that “students have compiled it.”  In a way, it is self-defeating to have any definitions when the subject is like a palette of infinite colors, but this is still helpful. Heck, I still get confused about gender definitions, and I’m as integrally involved as anyone! I’ve never thought of adding an asterisk after my own trans-ness though. Maybe I should. Nicky* is kind of cool…

Thanks to author Julie Scelfo for this list, which was published in the NY Times on Feb 3rd, 2015.

SEX Classification as male or female or, rarely, intersex (not exclusively male or female). Sex is usually assigned based on external anatomy but is determined by characteristics like chromosomes, hormones and reproductive organs.

GENDER Roles, behaviors and activities that a given society considers appropriate for males or females. “Sex” and “gender” are often mistakenly used interchangeably.

GENDER IDENTITY Internal, deeply held sense of one’s gender.

GENDER NONCONFORMING Expressing gender outside of conventions (clothes, behavior) typically associated with masculinity or femininity. Not all nonconformists are transgender.

TRANSGENDER Umbrella term for any gender identity that differs from the one associated with the sex assigned at birth.

TRANS* Short for transgender, with the asterisk meant to indicate the wide range of identities beyond the norm.

GENDERQUEER A gender identity that falls outside of the male/female binary. A third gender.

PANGENDER Having a fluid identity. Might be expressed as both male and female, or shift from one gender to the other. Under the umbrella term genderqueer.

CISGENDER Possessing the gender identity commonly associated with one’s biological sex. “Cis-” is a Latin prefix meaning “on the same side as.”

TRANNSEXUAL Out-of-favor term for those who alter their bodies hormonally or surgically to align with their internal gender identity.

SEXUAL ORIENTATION Romantic, physical attraction, be it homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual, asexual, polysexual, pansexual.

Publishing day is getting closer!

About five years ago, I started writing a journal, or a diary as us Brits more often say. I was transitioning and although I didn’t know and certainly couldn’t foresee what was ahead of me, I knew that the path I was taking was unique, and something that I would never do again. Of course every life is unique, and the transitioning of every transgender person likewise, but I wanted to log feelings and experiences as they happened to me. That journal eventually evolved into the book that will will be published in spring 2005 through Telemachus Press.

The book is called “Tea and Transition” and will be the subject of future blog posts, and has a dedicated website too, that I am putting the finishing touches to. That will be found at www.nicolajanechase.com.

The process of writing – and now publishing – a book is a mix of exciting, daunting, exasperating, and thrilling. It is also a little unnerving as I prepare to tell the world many of the intimate and personal details that now are only mine but soon will become public knowledge. But the time is coming, and I am ready to tell the world of all the experiences that have happened to me. Of love, the human spirit, and how one heterosexual man became one heterosexual woman.