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.

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