Barry Humphries is the fictional creation of Australian writer, comedian and male-impersonator, ‘Dame’ Edna Everage. Everage was born in Melbourne in 1934, and started her show-business career appearing in plays and comedy sketches. The character of Barry Humphries was created for the 1955 revue, ‘Return Fare’, and Humphries was such a hit that Everage was soon playing him at comedy clubs and making guest-appearances as Humphries on Australian television. In the 1960s, Humphries was introduced to London audiences during Everage’s act at The Establishment club, and to American audiences in an off-Broadway show in the 1970s. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Everage’s alter-ego was a staple of British television, and she continues to perform as Barry Humphries on stage and screen in America and England. In an interview with The Daily Telegraph this month, Everage entered the debate on the right of transgender women to identify as female. Asked what she thought about fellow Australian Germaine Greer’s assertion on the BBC’s Newsnight programme (October 2015) that male-to-female transsexuals are not women – and never can be – Everage is reported to have said, “I agree with Germaine! You’re a mutilated man, that’s all. Self-mutilation, what’s all this carry on? Caitlyn Jenner – what a publicity-seeking ratbag. It’s all given the stamp – not of respectability, but authenticity or something.” Everage’s comments begin to make some sense in relation to a tendency in contemporary popular culture to assume that transgender is a phenomenon to be celebrated, and that Caitlyn Jenner is somehow courageous and heroic in her preparedness to talk about her transgender experiences for money. I want to argue, however, that transgender is not an institution that needs ‘celebrating’, and that transgender people do not need to be treated by the media with the same sort of deference – and in the same hyperbolic terms – as war veterans and cancer survivors. Instead, the greatest courtesy transgender people could be paid would be to be allowed, simply, to be different, and to be able to navigate twenty-first century social, political and economic life without having barriers of ignorance thrown up in our way.
Barry Humphries’ comments about Caitlyn Jenner seem to be a storm-in-a-teacup backlash against the apparent ubiquity of transgender people in popular culture. It is perhaps unfortunate for Humphries and Germaine Greer that Caitlyn Jenner’s award as one of Glamour magazine’s ‘Women of the Year’ coincides with the season in which Eddie Redmayne is nominated for a brace of film prizes (including an Oscar) for his portrayal of Art Deco-era transsexual Lili Elbe in ‘The Danish Girl’, the Amazon Studios TV series ‘Transparent’ has made such a favourable impression on critics, and Laverne Cox has been on the cover of Time beside the headline ‘The Transgender Tipping Point’. These three people have received such a disproportionate amount of media attention that anyone who is even a little bit transphobic can be forgiven for fearing that a transgender takeover of public life is only an application of lip-gloss away. Humphries and Greer can relax, however. Fortunately for them, the legacy of Jenner, Redmayne and Cox will be that a transgender person only has the right to a place in the public’s collective affection if they are either pretty or glamorous, or both – attributes which are, by their very nature, superficial and fleeting. Can you remember the name of the Portuguese male-to-female transsexual who won Endemol UK’s ‘Big Brother’ programme in 2004? How about the name of the transgender Wachowski sibling, who was at least half-responsible for ‘The Matrix’ trilogy; or the New York actor, nightclub singer and activist, who, between 1951 and 1953, became one of the first high-profile Americans to undergo gender reassignment surgery and be prescribed feminising hormones?
No? And those are just three examples of transsexuals who can, by any mainstream definition, be described as attractive. Heaven help transsexuals on whom the media does not bestow the gift of being considered sexy. Boxing promoter Frank Maloney became Kellie Maloney in August 2014; American soldier-turned-Wikileaks-snitch, Bradley Manning, announced her transition to Chelsea exactly a year earlier. Both of them were briefly all over the news, but then, as quickly as they were pulled into the spotlight, they were discarded by the media machine, and, at the time, neither Barry Humphries nor Germaine Greer sought to make hysterical predictions of a trans-apocalypse. Just as Nadia Almada, Lana Wachowski and Christine Jorgensen have passed out of our celebrity-consciousness, so will Laverne Cox, Caitlyn Jenner and Lili Elbe (who has, let’s face it, remained more or less anonymous for the last 85 years).
The current media visibility of a handful of transgender women – which is conditional upon them being deemed beautiful by cultural consensus – is not something engineered by the transgender community. It is the media’s hunger for something a little bit out-of-the-ordinary that has made a celebrity out of Caitlyn Jenner. Jenner’s agent has exploited this and turned it into dollars, but that cannot, by any process of extraction, be regarded as the fault of transgender people generally. The silent transgendered majority are not courting publicity, and they aren’t marching on government buildings demanding to be celebrated. Humphries’ and Greer’s shared outrage shouldn’t be directed at trans-culture, therefore, but at a popular press obsessed with fame for fame’s sake, and at a media which deifies the shallow and exults the inconsequential (and to which, ironically, Humphries and Greer owe their continued livelihoods).
I didn’t transition because I wanted to be celebrated: I did it because to not to made me horribly depressed. I would lose days to a debilitating misery; curled foetal in a corner and sobbing for air as if I was drowning. On many evenings, I would cry myself to sleep, but then have dreams haunted by a sense of unfulfilled longing to become someone else – someone female. I don’t know why I didn’t want to be a man anymore (although I have many theories), but I do know that it made me thoroughly and desperately unhappy not to able to look how I wanted, dress how I wanted, and occupy the space in the world that I wanted.
I was fortunate enough to meet someone who recognised these crippling bouts of melancholy for what they probably were – nervous exhaustion from the emotional energy I expended ignoring my reflection in the mirror and forcing myself to put on a shirt-and-tie for work every Monday morning. She was the one who dragged me to a GP to begin the process of full-time transition, and I will never be able to adequately show her how grateful I am that she was brave enough to make the decision I was too shattered to make for myself.
There is no avoiding the plain fact, however, that taking the step of living full-time in female role has necessitated enormous sacrifice; by transitioning, I have lost a great deal. Most conspicuously, I appear to have committed career suicide: whilst I was once on the way to becoming head-teacher of my own school, I now have to content myself with scraps of supply-teaching work in schools too desperate to object to the presence of a transgender woman in their classrooms. I have lost friends (who, I now see, didn’t meet the main criteria for being friends after all – that of unconditional support), and, two years on, there are still some members of my small family who haven’t quite yet wrapped their heads around who I am becoming.
I was also dropped from the amateur dramatics group with whom I had enjoyed five years of fame and glory playing leading comic roles to increasingly exclusive audiences in versions of operettas by Gilbert and Sullivan. I started attending rehearsals in female role half-way through my last production with them, and, as soon as they got the chance, the committee bumped me from the top of the bill to the back row of the chorus quicker than you can say “A British tar is a soaring soul”. This silly and trivial fall from grace shouldn’t bother me, but I had thought that, of all social environments, amateur dramatics ought to be one of the most tolerant and all-embracing. Theatricals is, when all said and done, a haven for a wide spectrum of attention-seekers, eccentrics, neurotics, show-offs, control-freaks, nerds, has-beens, pedants, hysterics, frustrated actors, frustrated singers, frustrated dancers, overt (and undecided) homosexuals, day-dreamers, wannabes, egotists, narcissists, the pathologically talentless, and people on the lookout for an extra-marital affair. Surely, I assumed, there was a place amongst that lot for a transgender woman brave enough to step out of the closet?
Apparently not, and it hurt to realise that that west London Gilbert and Sullivan society was just as prissy, conservative and inward-looking as the larger organisations from which I had already been excluded. The artificial bubble of amateur dramatics turned out to be a microcosm of the rejection and alienation I was experiencing elsewhere in the world, and I was learning the hard way that it is okay to be different, provided you’re different in a way that is easily comprehensible and socially sanctioned.
If anything about my transgender journey should be celebrated, it is my ability to continue to strive towards what I want despite the considerable weight of institutionalised opposition stacked against me. (And it is a never-ending journey: an ultimately unattainable ambition of who I want to be; like Ulysses in Tennyson’s poem, “all experience is an arch wherethro’/ Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades/ For ever and for ever when I move.”)
At certain key junctures, society has appointed gatekeepers who I must persuade to grant me licence to pass onto the next phase of my journey; chillingly, it is on the opinion of these individuals and committees that certain aspects of my future depend. Furthermore, the list of gatekeepers I have in mind is a long and a daunting one: from the school managers with the power to end my career, to the doctors I need to refer me for gender-identity counselling; from the Home Office officials who need convincing to allow me to put an F in the appropriate box on my passport so that I can wear what I want wherever I want, to the psychiatrists who must be persuaded to sanction my request to take feminising hormones or undergo cosmetic surgery; from the cousin who insists on buying me boxer-shorts for Christmas, to the friend who has the power of veto over whether I attend her daughter’s christening in my new gender role; from the governments that legislate on the entitlement of transgender people to the recognition they desire, to light-entertainers who stir up discrimination by accusing me of self-mutilation.
The title of this blog entry comes from the inside-sleeve of Pulp’s 1995 album, ‘Different Class’. It is a neat summary of how I currently feel about my place in the world. I don’t want ‘celebrating’: I just want to be able to navigate my way through life without the institutions on which I depend for my health, wealth and well-being erecting cruel and unnecessary obstacles to my right to live a fulfilling life and make a meaningful contribution to society.