Monday, March 26, 2012

A sad night at the theatre

‘Heteronormative’ is not a word I ever thought I’d find myself using.

If I understand it right, it comes from queer cultural theory, and describes a set of values that holds that people fall into distinct genders, male and female with heterosexuality is the only normal sexual orientation and which belittles, ridicules and marginalises anyone who falls outside this norm, either because of their sexuality or their gender.

It is an all pervasive set of values that’s hard for many people to spot, because it’s as all encompassing as the air we breathe or the water surrounding a gold fish swimming round and round the goldfish bowl.

It is far more obvious to an outsider like me, but generally I scrape by, until a particularly aggressive instance of it exposes my nerve endings and scrapes them painfully.

And then I find myself using this ugly piece of jargon; because it encapsulates an ugly experience.

There really is no other word that better describes the new adaptation of “The Marriage of Figaro” I saw in the theatre the other night.

What first hit me was the treatment of Cherubino. In the original, he’s a young and beautiful page boy who is in love with the countess and who on a couple of occasions is disguised as a woman. Here he is a stupid office boy from Eastern Europe who is humiliated and made to look ridiculous in drag.

The man next door to me found it hilarious. He particularly liked the moment the boy was pushed out onto a window ledge 8 stories up.

I’ve always had difficulty laughing at people’s suffering. Particularly then, when I felt so vulnerable, so at the margin, so at the very edge. As I know trans people do everywhere.

Transphobia, to use another ugly word, is about the expression of ugly attitudes of hostility towards and prejudice against trans people. It’s what inspired the abuse and threats of physical violence I used to encounter every time I left my front door; ridicule and physical attack that remains a constant possibility. As it does to trans people everywhere.

Because it’s partly about the the notion that it’s ridiculous and grotesque for someone biologically male to want a woman’s identity or want to wear women’s clothes it is closely related to misogyny; and so it was no surprise to find so many of the play’s other jokes were directed against women. Older women in particular.

My neighbour particularly enjoyed the moment when Susanna performed a humiliating stripper’s dance; and when it came to the count’s line “Men age like wine. Women age like milk” it seemed to be the funniest thing the man had ever heard.

Beaumarchais and Mozart created a precious work of art that is compassionate, tender, funny and humane. That points up the absurdities of the sexist double standard and points forward to a time where there are more equal relationships between the classes and men and women treat each other with tenderness and mutual respect.

How desperately sad to see a gifted, witty, intelligent and ingenious young writer transforming it into something so reactionary, so rancid and so heartless.

How depressing to see a theatre I love staging it.

Friday, March 16, 2012

a small sad skirmish in the gender war

My mother-in-law is 87 years old and has been a devout Christian all of her life.

She believes the bible is the literal truth, at least in those matters which confirm her prejudices, and all her life has taken this verse very much to heart:

"A woman must not wear man's clothing..." (Deuteronomy 22 verse 5).

So only once in her long life has she worn trousers. It was a pair of track suit bottoms,and she felt so uncomfortable in them she never wore them again.

So the fact that her son-in-law is now legally her daughter-in-law is something it is difficult, in fact impossible, for her to understand or accept.

My trans sexuality is one of the growing list of things she finds painful and difficult and so chooses to ignore.

It is not that she dislikes or despises me; on the contrary, one of the many painful aspects of all this is that she loves me dearly and absolutely does not wish to include me in the category of detestable beings the Lord apparently considers an abomination.

So every time I come out to her she simply disregards it. If I am in her presence wearing a skirt or a dress she ignores me, using all her Christian talents for inducing guilt and shame. It is a deeply unpleasant experience and I try to avoid it.

Me and my daughters are the only family she has and sometimes I wonder whether it wouldn't be best just to leave her in her isolation.

But I am fond of her, too, and in her vulnerability could not simply abandon her.

So I adopt an uneasy compromise. I cannot dress as a man, but I wear the kind of androgynous women's clothes I wore in the years before I transitioned. And I deal with the embarrassment she causes me by introducing me as "John" and "my son-in-law" to her friends from church or hospital staff.

This particular day, wearing a tunic and skinny jeans, I had come out to the Occupational Therapist who is trying to negotiate the impasse caused by my understanding that she can no longer cope living at home on her own any more and her insistence that home is the place she wants to be.

Then I had gone to the hospital shop to buy her lip salve. I couldn't see it anywhere and so asked an efficient looking young woman who was stacking shelves. She told me where it was and then added "but you can always ask for it behind the counter, dear", as if she talking to a halfwit. Middle-aged men retain their intelligence and authority, apparently, and so are still addressed as "sir". We middle-aged women do not, and so generally get a very condescending "dear".

I tell myself to be grateful for small mercies, and move on. I go the ladies in the corridor outside the ward. There are two identical toilets side by side, one marked with a stick person in trousers and the other by a stick person in a skirt. It feels safer than the larger and somewhat chaotic ladies on the ground floor.

Just as I'm leaving a small boy tries to dart inside. But he's not quick enough, and his father restrains him.

"but I want to go to the toilet".

"Then go to the gents".

"I don't want to go to the gents!"

My heart goes out to her with such force I can barely stand.

The memories of my own young self, trapped in boyhood, utterly overwhelm me.

and the fear and the panic, and the shame.

And before I know it I am down the corridor and gone.

Sometimes on the bus when I see a child being shouted at or abused I can catch their eye and smile. I hope somehow my presence in this world can help them.

But this time even that was beyond me.

Meantime I am back by her bedside with the lips salve. In spite of everything, I remain a model person in law.

"I was sick and you visited me" as the Gospel says.

Also: "I was in prison and you visited me". So many of us remain in prison. I wish I could be with us all.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

A week

Not so long ago, I had a week like this:

On the Monday, I was revising the first chapter of my book version of GOD’S NEW FROCK, which is the Old Testament section of THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO JESUS QUEEN OF HEAVEN.

It's the story of a transwoman who finds herself to be a prophet of god. This strikes her as unlikely and improbable, but there it is. She’s stuck with it.

The revision had already taken weeks. I felt proud to finish it.

On Tuesday I started on Chapter Two. I had a vague expectation it would be easier than Chapter One.

I was mistaken.

On Wednesday I led a workshop for MSc students of Edinburgh University studying contemporary European theatre. It was a practical workshop to encourage them to discover and develop their own capacity for empathy.

It happened in an unpromising room high in the David Hume tower. A building of such staggering ugliness dear Mr Hume would have been so unhappy to think of it bearing his name.

I enjoyed the students. I hope they enjoyed the workshop. What struck me is that while they were all imprisoned in the process of analyzing theatre what most of them seemed absolutely desperate to do was actually create it.

Which would tach them far more about themselves and about the world.

On Thursday I was rehearsing CHRYSTAL AND THE GENERAL with the actors Suzanne Dance and Clunie McKenzie. 

This is a piece we devised in 2009 to commemorate the centenary of the great Suffragette March through Edinburgh that was led by Flora Drummond - ‘The General’ - riding a great white horse. It contrasted her work with Chrystal McMillan’s for the Suffrage cause. Flora believed that it was necessary to work outside the law to gain women’s political aims; Chrystal believed it was more effective to work within it.

This contrast of approach split the Suffrage movement and continues to split protest movements to this day.

We performed it the following week in the Chrystal McMillan building - Edinburgh University again - and I think it went well. My late partner, Sue Innes, greatly admired Chrystal and would have been happy to know that the department where she did her PhD had been named after her.
I think she was with us that afternoon.

On the Friday  I was off to Glasgow for a follow up meeting about SEX, CHIPS AND THE HOLY GHOST. The main thing to follow up was the possibility of TV interest. Which has since grown.

On Saturday I was round at my mother-in-law’s. She was upset because she had been sick and then too brethless and weak to clean it up.More and more it was becoming apparent she could not manage at home.

And on the Sunday I was round again. She had just lifted a cup of tea up to her mouth and was, as a consequence, gasping for breath. I dialled 999. They were very good. Prompt and caring.

Later, in accident and emergency, I sat by her trolley. She was on oxygen, asleep. Her ruined chest, in its clumsy uncordinated way, was greedily breathing in oxygen.

It was as if every cell in her body was wholly engaged in grasping for every particle of life the world could still give her.

And I thought: I will come to this.

We all will.

This is how it all ends, this frantic activity.

And I am still trying to understand why. 

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