With the new Netflix show Pose hitting the screen, Steven Smith talks about the prejudice towards Transgender people in the community and why fear must not dominate our lives.
It’s six in the morning and London is freezing cold. I am wrapped under a duvet when the phone goes. It’s Liz Branson (aka Grace) calling from New York; it is an unusual time for her to call so I pick up.
“I am ill”, she says, before I even get a chance to say hello. The gist of it is that she had been out jogging with the dog and she had tried to turn to the right (no doubt she had seen something in the window at Barneys). Her dog, Mounty Blue, had seen a cute Chihuahua and dashed to the left, leaving Liz on the floor with a sprained ankle.
Part of me wanted to giggle as, despite my bombarding her with e-mails on why jogging with the dog is bad for them both, she always knows best and tells me that Mounty “loves it”.
However, there is a genuine fear in her voice that the woman who always has to be in control is confined to the sofa, unable to go on her ten-mile morning run or, for that matter, to be in control of everything. Now is not to time to deliver a lecture!
Instead, I suggest home help, but there is a sigh; she has already got a batch of vegan curry and pumpkin soup and she can limp to heat it up. Plus, her friend Sonia and her husband Randy are coming in to see her and to walk the dog. This is in addition to the dog exerciser and I can hear Mounty now, “Bitch, can I just get a rest?”
Liz goes on to tell me that she needs to keep her leg elevated for five days. Hans, her gorgeous physio and personal trainer, will be in to check on her. I am sure her legs will be nice and high for that.
“It is a perfect time to sit and chat and drink wine.” I get the picture, she wants me to come to New York and make a fuss. But alas, I am flying to Thailand the next day to see my best male pal. There is the sound of disappointment in her voice, but she musters a “have fun”. She quickly adds, “Do you think I’ll get fat?” For the first time the sound of fear permeates her voice. I reply “NO!” and tell her to rest up.
Half an hour later, I text her: “It is just a little set back in the life that is the wonder of you, it will be ok”. She returns four hearts.
Fast forward and I am hanging onto the back of a motorbike, zooming around the picturesque back country lanes of Mae Rim in the province of Chiang Mai. I am gripped by fear, certain that the next bump or gravelled road will lift me from the bike, throwing me under an oncoming lorry or motorcar and resulting in my death or at least ten days of hospitalisation. This is not a natural mode of transport for me.
It is not that my friend’s driving is not good, it is that fear in all its glory had come into play. First of all, the morning had started with an expectation: “You know, we could see a lot more of Chiang Mai and it would be a lot cheaper if you could just get on the back of the bike, babes”. Adam, my friend of many years’ standing, gave me that look that told me he was going to be disappointed if I did not go ahead and at least try. He said if he could learn to drive the bike, anyone could, and all I had to do was hold on to the back.
My mum had a friend whose son, an actor, had been killed at the early age of 22 on a motorbike. Mum always went on about not going on a bike or driving one, so DANGER signs flared up for me. Plus, my barber Mike had an accident on his bike and was in hospital for months afterwards.
To be honest, I was hoping that the subject would just go away. Don’t get me wrong, fear does not dominate my life. Having come out at 16, I have confronted many other challenges, from skydiving to trekking the mountains of Peru to walking around Harlem in the 90s: conquering fear has not been an issue.
Having said that, fear can also be a powerful tool to warn us to stay away from things. However, the subject of the motorbike did not go away and although a quarter of my mind is concentrating on the kids and elderly people who hang off the bikes in Thailand (how hard can it be?), the rest is gripped by fear. Fear not only of getting on the bike, but also of disappointing Adam; I think that when we love people, we don’t want to disappoint them.
With me feeling like a rabbit in the headlights, Adam is instructing me how to get on the bike and telling me the dangers of not turning my head as we go around corners.
He is leading with the negatives and that is all I will be hearing. With normal mortals, Adam is the perfect teacher. He adds, “You can’t let fear take over. It is easy to do as we get older.” Gee, great news.
As an undiagnosed dyslexic kid, my father’s method of assisting me with homework was often downright abusive; my tears would often stain the pages of my school books. “Are you stupid? You’re going to end up a dustbin man.” I can still hear him, leading me to hide my homework from him.
As I was a bright kid, my mistakes were put down to being lazy or careless. Even when I failed my O-Level English Language but received an A for English literature, my dyslexia was not flagged up. I was not diagnosed until much later in life. This left me with issues around men teaching me; this always triggers my fear.
Needless to say, a combination of fear of disappointing Adam and a desire to see more found me hanging on for dear life, zooming around the stunning landscape of Mae Rim, Thailand, and actually enjoying it.
All human beings have inbuilt fear, but the LGBTQ community have an abundance of it lumped on them. Fear of coming out, fear of how we are perceived by society, fear for our basic safety. Suicides in the UK are rising horribly among young LGBTQ people, and attacks on us have increased by 80 per cent in the last four years.
Deaths and discrimination against the transgender community are off the graph. Some countries still have a ban against gay people entering the military. Are they frightened that we will bugger them to death? Alexander the Great was gay and was also one of history’s greatest generals. Now, Trump is pushing to ban certain transgender people from entering the military, although drones and robots are just fine. What is it that he and his right-wing religious pals are frightened of?
Now, you would think that under the protective blanket of the LGBTQ family, all would be welcome as we embrace the different and those struggling to find their identity in life or needing support. But it seems that the trans people are coming under attack and are even being discriminated against by pockets of the community. At Pride this year there were anti-trans protests, with someone reportedly screaming, “dykes not dicks”.
At the moment, Stonewall is failing in three key ways:
By uncritically adopting a form of transgender politics which undermines the sex-based rights of women and the concept of homosexuality itself.
By refusing to recognise the diversity of viewpoints on these issues, including among LGBT people.
By seeking to prevent public debate of these issues by branding as transphobic anyone who questions Stonewell’s current trans policies.
It is said by some that back in 1969 there were no transsexuals (fully reassigned) at Stonewall, although Marsha P. Johnson, a front-line gay liberation activist, self-identifying drag queen, and frontrunner for black trans women’s rights was a prominent figure at the Stonewall riots. There is great debate as to whether it was Marsha who threw the first stone, and whether it really matters. Marsha was fierce and a warrior.
In 1980, at the age of 19, I hung out in Greenwich Village where the riots took place in the early hours of June 28th, 1969. It was a vibrant and exciting place, full of energy and excitement but also fear, as the hot humid New York nights brought many people on to the street to drink and party; a standing target for the many haters and homophobes who also prowled the village.
My friend Tim Hoff, a New York make-up artist, gave me some advice: “You’ll have fun here but if you get into trouble or anyone tries to beat up on you, scream for the drag-queens as the muscle Marys and clones will go running back inside”
It is fair to say that the drag queens of New York I met were as kind as kind could be, but were also as hard as nails when necessary. They had to be, they were in much more danger than the average gay man or woman. Often not welcome in the main men’s bars of the 80s, they faced prejudice from all sides.
The brilliant new Netflix show, Pose, is compelling viewing. It shows the struggle the transgender community had to undergo, set among the 80’s Vogue balls with the houses performing against each other. It is well worth seeing.
These were not like the drag queens I had seen In London at the legendary Black Cap, such as Mrs Shufflewick or the quick-witted Mark Flemming. These were streetwise often authentic looking woman (to the untrained eye). Many of them dreamed of undergoing reassignment surgery, something not that common back in the 80s.
Some of them made their living by entertaining on stage or lived a double life; many sold their bodies to save for the operation or just to survive, tripling the chances of violence. Let’s not get into why they were worth so much more pre-op, that’s for another tale.
Let’s face it, back in 1969 how many of those protesting for our freedom would have wanted to have changed sex, given the opportunities that exist today? Is it not time to embrace the evolving movement? What is it that some people fear, is it the unknown or their own deeper issues?
Last year, I chatted with the divine David Hoyle, a brilliant UK performance artist. We both agreed as kids that we would have preferred to have been born female. We would marvel at the Miss UK show and wanted to play with dolls.
Oh, the horror people still feel at a boy playing with dolls, yet not an eyebrow is raised when the child is tying his friend up playing cowboys and Indians or pretending to shoot another kid with a gun.
But maybe the desire to be born a girl was because there was nowhere visible for us to fit in. This changed when glam rock and T-Rex came along; our eyes were opened and there was finally a light at the end of the tunnel. But for some that feeling never goes away.
Now, I love being perceived as a man and have no desire to change sex. But what I do know is that every single person going on that journey is a soldier, and if they choose to be part of the LGBTQ community, they deserve respect for their choice and equal rights.
On a final note, many of the transgender community want nothing to do with us. CBB contestant, boxing promoter, and all-round nice woman Kellie Maloney thinks that the T should be taken off, leaving it as LGBQ. Several other high-profile figures, including transgender actress and model Nicole Gibson, have decided that they have had enough of all the politics and now stay away from any of the activist groups. Who can blame them?
You can understand that after fighting for the body they feel they should have been born into, they may want to live a normal life as a heterosexual woman and have nothing to do with the LGBQ community. But for those that want to be under the umbrella, let’s give them nothing to fear and treat them with full respect.
Time to jump back on the bike.
Steven is a published author, regular radio guest and has a monthly column in MilliOnAirMagazine.