The shop near Euston was called ‘Transformations’. There were some pretty pink petticoats in the window, so I went in. The lighting was dim, the decor dark – all boudoir drapes, velvet cushions and curtained cubicles – so it took me a moment to realise that all the other customers were men. An assistant appeared from the shadows. Deep voice, heavy make-up.
Did Madam have an appointment? No, she didn’t and didn’t like to ask, what for? and the ‘just looking’ sounded all wrong, so she grabbed a catalogue and made a quick exit. There were pages and pages of glossy pictures: of big wigs, corsets, stockings, fake breasts and ‘lady aids’ like oestrogen soap. Not a catalogue to take home, so left it on a bench for someone else to enjoy.
It was the late 1980s. I was a middle-aged mum then, who knew a thing or two about Life. One of my friends had divorced a transvestite. A David Bowie fan, I’d also read ‘Conundrum’, a brave book about a sex-change in 1972 – but cross-dressing,in drag, was still for the stage or the catwalk… The adventure near the station was my first direct encounter with a world I barely knew existed, where the misfit was me. An outsider in a shop only a street or two away from my flat.
30 years ago. The feminist revolution had made being a woman fashionable but men were still firmly the ‘opposite sex’, with a very different set of bits and bobs. There were new ways of living your life – with or without career, husband or children – but the choices were anchored in the body you were born with. Fashion and Beauty could be as companions and if the gods were kind, your sexual identity was not strange to you, but home.
2013. A first-floor salon in Manchester. After an exfoliating facial, I went down the stairs, all aglow, and met another client coming up. A tall, stunning brunette, with a superior silk scarf worn high around the neck. We exchanged appreciative glances – but the one in my direction was from a man.
The recognition was instant, absolute. A few steps on, I looked back – and not just to check out the clothes – but he’d gone. At a later appointment the therapist told me that since hair removal became available on the NHS, she had several new clients….She was also treating a desperately hairy teenage girl, whose mother had to pay.
Just one look – but I’ve often wondered about the attractive man in transition on the stairs. About the limits to transformation, how far it’s really possible to change sex. And how some people are so seductive it hardly matters how male or female they are!
2017. A TV chat show and an interview with a celebrity sitting on a sofa, ankles crossed as neatly as the Queen’s, who was ‘on a journey’. Once suicidal, now ‘active in the transgender community.’ Born a boy, he always knew he was a girl, ‘deep down.’ Someone in the audience asked my question. How, how did you know? The answer was abrupt. ‘I just knew’, she said.
It’s hard to be sure about the ‘she’. Did the certainty spring from a female brain in the ‘wrong’ body? The multi-tasking mind that some say is the stuff of stereotypes? Or from somewhere else science can’t reach, that ‘deep down’ we have no map for yet?
The ancient instinct to group people, to distinguish one from the other, also runs deep: friend or foe, adult or child, him or her? A definite-maybe is disconcerting. When a natural-born meets a ‘man-made’ woman, who does she see? A Sister to kiss in welcome, face to face, or a Sham – or through a glass still more darkly, a Stranger?
It’s sad. They could have much to say to each other. They share the human fate. The expansive, 21st century self tells me there has to be space and time in this world for another kind of woman, beyond biology. For the inbetweens and other genders too, like the Two- Spirit people in other cultures. We’re all on a spectrum, after all. Which is fine, until another scene takes me straight back to basics – the body and the call of nature.
2018. A National Art Gallery, where I’m looking for a little figure on a door in a skirt. I can see a Unisex Toilet sign – a man in half a skirt, but don’t want to use it, not sure what I’d find behind the metal door, wide enough for a wheelchair. A row of urinals? I don’t want a neutral, open-plan, political affair. I want the Ladies. The age-old safe and separate space where a nose can be powdered in peace, which will smell nice. It’s an inconvenient truth, but men are less tidy in their toilet habits. There is a traditional loo on another floor, so head for that, indignant. Why can’t They leave anything alone? Is nowhere sacred?
Far from the sexual landscape and shifting signposts, where boundaries are crossed and crossed again, there is a place apart, beyond the imagination, where little moves. Where being a woman is a dignity, maybe the last you have left. An eternal identity, when you no longer know who or what you are.
I was the traditional ‘other woman’ only once, but had the perfect excuse. My lover’s wife didn’t know she was married to him or to anyone else. Once bright and beautiful – a soprano fluent in three languages, she lived in a Home. She responded to her daughter’s voice, but did not recognise it. Her husband was an honourable man, who did his best, though the complexities of buying a new bra for her once reduced him to tears. Tell me about her, I asked him. Gentle, he said, feminine. She made her own and the children’s clothes and very light pastry. Sang like an angel.
Pamela. She never knew I existed or that she changed the course of my life, from the South to the North, from the North to the Midlands. She died in 2005, but I often think about her – so glad to have thoughts for her to inhabit. I never set eyes upon her, but sometimes feel I knew the woman, deep down.