We have marked International Transgender Day of Visibility in our city for a while now if not for long enough maybe. We are sometimes a little late to the feast here, but we are catching up. Our city’s Pride event in July was late to be established but is flourishing now. This year, coincident with the Day of Visibility and alongside its other activities, we will have a TransPride March and an evening of performance celebrating local trans culture. Maybe nothing in life is easy, but this straightforward commitment has brought out some previously latent disagreements. I am glad that we will march together on our streets and look forward to an evening of trans self-expression, but this all comes at a cusp moment for trans people in the public eye.
We have enjoyed a long period of attention and many opportunities to share our experiences. One result of that is that many more people than previously have declared themselves as transgender and in so doing have widened definitions and terminology. It is also now open season on trans issues as people generally strive to come to terms with new ways of seeing themselves and us, and relating to both. Friends often ask me now to clarify “non-binary” or “gender-fluid”, anxious to “get it right”, and I do my best to answer them even as I admit to myself that not even the trans community can be sure to “get it right”.
It seems that the situation is destabilizing, and one sign of this is the speed with which definitions and redefinitions arrive on the scene. We, of course, live in an accelerating world and being trans is not the only expression of this. The language with which we understand disability or literature or politics is speeding up too and the result is to divide those who have an interest in the “new” from those who are still living the “existent”, the “now”. So at a meeting about our TransPride someone was reported as expressing a wish that it would not be dominated “by the drag queens”.
Ooops! Such a lot to say about this. Where to start? Maybe with the thought that irony has struck early for our inclusive event with this hint of exclusivity. If a sharp rejoinder were to be made it might shape up as, “If we hadn’t had the drag queens, hunni, you and I probably wouldn’t be standing here talking now.” And if it’s attention-seeking you’re uneasy with (because those queens, they do seize the spotlight) then don’t have a public march or a day of visibility. Here we are, the “existent” queer-trans culture potentially outlawed by the “new” activists. It’s not the general public who are being exposed to this fissure in our commonality, - not yet anyway – but ourselves who are confronted with it.
Now then, a self-declaration – I am feeling my age these days. And this has the effect of my talking a lot about “generations”. There is currently a generation which the media likes to call Millennials and I consider the actions and reactions of this group, insofar as they really exist, with both fascination and horror. We can love them for their righteous and principled attitude to the world whilst we are deeply frustrated by their narcissism and self-involvement. We may envy them their energy whilst we bear the brunt of their intricate self-doubts and vulnerabilities. And we can – I can especially – feel personally affronted that they seem to think history started with them and their entry into the world. Excuse me! A lot of me and us happened before you arrived and we don’t need your permission to be here.
" I AM DELIGHTED FOR YOU, BUT I AM NOT BEING PATRONIZING WHEN I URGE YOU TO CHECK OUT OUR HISTORY."
But, calm down, calm down. My dear millennial transgenderists, I understand that you have quite wonderfully come into your inheritance as socially present beings and are naturally a little dizzy with it all. I am delighted for you, but I am not being patronizing when I urge you to check out our history. Long before even Stonewall what we now call transgender was an element in the Great Diversity. There are people in power now who would deny that Diversity but, believe me, it happened, and was around not so long ago. If it’s around now – trust me – one of its main focal points (Can diversity focus? Probably….) is us, yes, we transgender people. Uniformity has not diminished us yet. We contain diversity within us – if we allow ourselves the historical perspective. We fly the flag by just being here.
So, those drag queens you’re so wary of, they are a far more complex tribe than you seem to realize and it’s often hard to keep them all in one category. Are the striving self-transformers of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” in the same box as me when I perform my autobiographical reflections, or are any of us totally congruent with the historical phenomena which were, for example, Marsha P. Johnson or Ethyl Eichelberger? And where do Scottie or Grayson Perry fit into all this?
I know, you’re really desperate to disown those door-whores, lip-synchers and club-divas, - some of whom aren’t even gay! What’s your problem? They all belong in our community by the nature of their embracing transition and they deserve their place here if they’re out and proud – and brave and honest and tolerant – in the way they co-habit with us. If they don’t they don’t deserve to belong to any community. You know what, sometimes I’m a drag queen, and sometimes I’m not. And, hey, look, here come the drag-kings, and the genderqueers, and sometime we’re them too. Can they come on our March? Try stopping them. Every Queen Needs A Scene. Did I invent that? I hope so. It’s a shared scene and we’re all in it. So far it doesn’t have a proprietor. It’s what we’ll march about on March 31st this year.
"YOU CAN DO COURSES IN DRAG, YOU CAN WATCH YOU-TUBE TUTORIALS, YOU CAN WRITE DOCTORAL DISSERTATIONS ON IT."
Granted, drag has changed over the years. Like everything now it presents as sharper and cooler than before. You can do courses in drag, you can watch You-Tube tutorials, you can write doctoral dissertations on it. Drag goes deep. It’s now in some ways a kit for identity. It’s a brand, a franchise, and however much we may want to make subtle verbal distinctions between ourselves and others the word which still comes to many, if not most, non-trans when confronted with one of us – is “drag”. It will take a long time for this to change. Meanwhile you are, I know, keen to ditch “transgender” for “non-binary”, but that won’t go away quickly either – it’s done too much heavy-lifting as a word to be easily decommissioned. This is rather the wrong time to be trying to dispense with history.
Maybe by the time this comes to press you, the organizers of our TransPride events, will be comfortable with our awful trans diversity. Maybe you won’t be too particular at this moment in history about answering the question, “How will we be seen?” Maybe you’ll accept that superficial signifiers often indicate conventional thinking. Let’s just be seen.
I have a great book which my niece gave me – it’s called “Why Drag?” It has lots of pictures, self-portrayals, positive assertions, and ideas. I open it at random, - Sister Roma of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence - “My drag was born out of activism….. People often ask me if I’m a Sister or a drag queen. I say both, because I’m proud to be a Sister and I’m honoured to be a drag queen – changing the world one glitter kiss at a time.”
Myself, the least I can do, and encourage others to do, is to be visible. We’re all making it up as we march along.