Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Last Friday I had to make a speech.

I was to open an art exhibition at an art. It was curated by the LGBT Health Centre in Edinburgh
and it was happening at the Out of the Blue Drill Hall

I like both organisations, and wanted to support them.

As far as I can gather, they asked me because they think I am Somebody; and the nerves I felt before and after made me aware that in a part of my being, at least, I still fear I am nobody.

I rehearsed, as I do, without writing anything down before hand. If i write anything down, it always sounds ridiculous and dull.
What generally then happens is that I make the speech, forget what I've said, and then lose whatever it was I did.

But this time I wrote it down afterwards. Partly to tell my lover, who couldn't be there, and partly to resist this nobody feeling.

Because it really is not true.

The place was packed. Maybe 200 people there? Not sure. It seemed like an awful lot.

I had to stop myself imagining they would be hostile to me. Because that really was not true either.

I started off with an opening from my GODS NEW FROCK:

Hello ladies, hello gentlemen. Hello men, hello women,
Hello those of you who are not ladies and are not gentlemen,
And not men and not women
but like me
maybe something in between or maybe something that’s a bit of both or something
or somebody
that has never been thought of or imagined yet
Somebody or something this evening may even bring into being.

And got them all to say hello back to me.

And how pleased I was to be there, and how eminent I felt, and I should really have been wearing a big frock with big shoes and the most enormous hat and been able to crack open a bottle of champagne on something and bless this boat ... even though this wasn’t a boat, it was an old army drill hall I still wanted to bless everyone very seriously because what was happening here tonight was so very special.

It isn’t in our nature to be entrepreneurs or bankers but it is in our nature to be creative.

Research shows early humans invented singing before talking. That before we communicated through words we communicated through song. And then we shared poems and amazing stories and painted wonderful pictures on the walls of our caves... and in sharing our creativity we are re-entering something really profound in our humanity.

I’m lucky, I said, for two reasons. One for being transgender. And in contradiction to everything I have been taught about it, to be transgender is actually an amazing privilege and blessing.

(That got a round of applause. Typical of me, somehow, not to have expected it).

The other thing is being able to use my creativity. Because without it I’d never have been able to stand up to the discrimination and prejudice from which we all suffer.

It would have been the end of me.

And I have seen in the amazing work of the transgendered writing group, Transforming Arts, just how profoundly art transforms everyone who is able to create it.

And that’s why this is a boat because everyone taking part is on the journey, and the health centre is on a journey, a good journey through choppy waters where we re-connect with who we really are, and our pride in who we really are, and we contradict prejudice and show the world our amazing gifted diversity.

So I am cutting an imaginary ribbon -SNIP - and cracking open an imaginary bottle of champagne - CRACK! - and naming this ship “The Amazing Exhibition” and Goddess bless all of us who sail in her."

There seemed to be a lot of applause. Which i didn't really know how to receive.

I felt a bit trembly and exhausted and exposed afterwards and after being congratulated - because it really did go very well - I suddenly felt unbearably shy and tired and had to leave.

Reflecting on it all afterwards opened up a memory:

of being back at boarding school in my second term. I was just thirteen, and still raw from my mother's sudden death two years before.

I can't remember why, exactly, but a boy called Whitley sent me to Coventry. He had a kind of ascendency over everyone in my year and it meant that for most of that term no-one would speak to me.

At mealtimes we would queue up the revolting food and then carry it back to our tables. And no-one would sit with me.

Looking back on it, it sounds almost trivial. But I'm not sure I can find the words to describe the sense of fear and humiliation and shame I felt.

It had something to do with the feeling of fear of being Different, and the horror of it was intensified by the fact that the following year i started acted girls' parts. And discovered I loved it. So that experience of being rejected, and so afraid of it, all got tangled up with my awareness of being transsexual.

Not that I could call it that then. The word didn't exist. Whatever i was was unspeakable.

And there it still is: that paralysing shyness with large groups of people in social situations.

That panic and that withdrawal and that desire to run away.

Which shows just how hard it is to remain fully in the present moment. And I imagine that it is precisely because it is so hard that we value it so much, and call it Presence, or some such thing.

But it can be achieved. There are amazing possibilities of life within us.

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Monday, March 14, 2011

Haunted by images from Japan.

I couldn’t get away from a film this morning.

And have just had to watch it again, when I checked this reference.

It’s a town, a small ordinary kind of place as far as I can tell, and we watch the first water rush along the pavement.
And the water builds and builds with terrifying speed, cars are starting to get banged about. And then this thing appears. This boat. In the middle of a street.
And the water seems to be at about 4 feet, just in a minute or so, and the camera has spotted someone inside a shop opposite, zooms in on this fugure, helpless in the roaring chaos of his shop, and then it’s as if we turn away.
It’s becoming clear we’re standing on a steep slope and there is an avenue of escape, which is reassuring, because the water is just coming with such ferocity and speed.
All the cars have gone now. And it’s the buildings. it’s the buildings in the town being wrenched off their foundations and coming towards us.
This is too much for the person with the camera, who turns and starts running up the hill.
But the water has such appalling fascination, they cannot resist it, they turn back, and the buildings collapsing all around.
Like lot’s wife, I’m thinking.
And then suddenly through the chaos we zoom in on a group on a collapsing roof, quite close, seconds before the whole thing obliterates them for ever.
And the film ends.
The water is climbing up the second storeys now, it must be at least ten to twelve feet deep. It took six minutes. Six minutes. And in the next six minutes there’s no doubt the whole town will be destroyed.
The whole thing is on a tiny screen, plastered with irritating maps of Japan.
And it’s just as well. Any larger or clearer and it would be unbearable to watch it.

Yesterday i saw a man, standing dazed in the devastation. He kept saying he could not believe it. He could not believe it was real. When he was alone, he said, he kept pinching his cheek. Pinching his cheek to try to believe it was real.

A young woman who had escaped. She had come back, to find somebody perhaps, and now she... it was as if she, too, could not believe what she was seeing. She had lost her bearings because everything that gave the landscape coherence or sense had been as if wiped off the face of the earth.
And so she stood there, disbelieving.

I was speaking yesterday at an event organised by the Middle East Peace Festival. It was called “Towards a Civilisation of Love”.

There was a woman there, a fine woman, also speaking. Her name was Claudia Gonçalves, a shaman, and she was also speaking.
She said she had dreamed the night before of the wave, the giant wave that was coming and she was trying to save her daughter.
“It is coming here”, she said. “The waves are coming here”.

And I thought of a speech I wrote in 1985. In LOSING VENICE:

“You remember the story our teacher told.
Of the wise man who built his house upon
the rock and the foolish one who built
his on the sand? We built ours on the mud.
We compromised.
And now we are sinking.
Year by year the tide water rises.
Already it has flooded our cellars;
Soon it will beat against our doors.
Then the waves will come and wash us
from the face of the earth.
The clouds gather. The storm is rising.
And it will come. Nothing can stop it.
We know. We laugh when we can;
We live, as we must.
Fear eats away our hearts. Will it spare us,
We wonder, will it spare or children?
Yet what can we do? Tear down our city?
Label the stones and move them, stone by stone,
Rebuild them on the higher ground?
All our energy is taken up with living.
Besides, is there any mountain high enough
to hide us,
Is there depth enough in any cave?
I doubt it. Crying is easy, Quevedo,
Laughter requires a little more strength.”

Monday, March 07, 2011

Just back from being literary in Bath.

Doing an author session in the morning gave me the chance to reflect back on my career.
It made me realise how long it's been - thirty years! - and then there were the fifteen years before that which I seem to have spent trying NOT to get involved in theatre, because it scared me so much.

Realising that the new play for the Traverse - THE TREE OF KNOWLEDGE - which it looks likely they will put it on this autumn, makes it twenty years since they last put on one of my plays (LIGHT IN THE VILLAGE in 1991).

It was at the Traverse that I found my voice (LOSING VENICE, 1985) and it was my artistic home until that connection was finally severed round about 1994.
Which was when I first started openly to express myself as a transgendered writer.

One of the occupational hazards I have found in being trans is that I have tended to be excluded, and have tended to exclude myself, from just about everything.

Including queer culture.

But here I am.
And a lot of the discussion in the morning in Bath was about how my artistic practice has been shaped by my being trans.
Which of course it has been and continues to be. Even though it took me years and years to fully realise this.
But it's why my voice is different. Why EVERY ONE has a special quality. Why it is so hard for my work to attain the level of acceptance and respect it deserves.

And it occurs to me that there is no tradition behind me. There's no other body of work to sustain me or for me to react against.
Which is one reason, I guess, why I am so proud of what I do.

That same evening I was involved in LEAVE TO REMAIN, which had sold out at the Mission Theatre.

It is a performance ritual that I co-created with a lovely actor/activist friend, Suzanne Dance, to help us through our bereavements, and that we perform with a wonderful cellist called Harriet Davidson.

And there's me, an openly trans woman, up on stage talking about the loss of my late wife Susie.

There's always a discussion afterwards, and almost always everyone talks about how grateful they are, and how moved they've been, to have the chance to acknowledge and honour their grief.

My being trans never comes up. Because  in the context of the things that matter, in the context of death and loss, it's just no big deal at all.

So sometimes I wonder what all the fuss is about.


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