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Posts Tagged ‘popular culture’

When I was a child, being raised as a boy, I was kind of an isolated one. Not so isolated before the age of nine, when I had my first clear sense of gender variance, but even before then I would tend to play by myself (I was quite asthmatic which was also limiting) and was obsessed in general with cultural artifacts rather than people. 

Music to begin with, played on our Deccalian record player and then ultimately our Dansette. But very quickly comics (I stole a comic from a cafe when I was about four!) and TV, particularly science fiction. And love of SF TV led at around 12 to love of written science fiction, firstly through Isaac Asimov‘s collection of stories I, Robot, as I was a robot nut. And then in the teen years my musical tastes widened tremendously, so you can find many different types of music and artists on our shelves at home. So I guess I was pretty geeky, and socially awkward in my teens for all the usual reasons plus the transgender reasons on top.

Great Science-Fiction

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Geek for some people is of course a negative term but I think it’s cool to be one (don’t like the term nerd however). And actually I’m an incredibly wide-ranging geek – I’m into all sorts of stuff. Which I think is one of the things that makes me good at my job – working with academic staff in all different disciplines across the University of East Anglia – because I am interested in what they’re up to and have enough geeky skills to talk a bit of their language and understand some of what they’re talking about, whether they’re a historian or teaching on a medical degree.

So I guess I know a lot about certain things (I can recognize whether a comic has been drawn by Steve Ditko, or Ron Embleton, or Barry Windsor-Smith, or Gene Colan, or Frank Bellamy, or Dave Gibbons … I’ll stop now), and a little about a lot. I ain’t no scientist, but I’ve heard of buckyballs.

But the reason I am writing about all this stuff is because a geek’s relationship to their geeky objects of interest is complicated. Initially it was just stuff I loved. And it was good stuff … it’s been kind of weird to treasure all this pop culture stuff as a child and then discover people teaching about it years later at universities. I didn’t see that coming based on the snobbery of some of the teachers when I was at university.

However as I became more troubled about my gender (and as an only child didn’t even have a sibling to consider daring to tell about my transness) some of these things became more a comfort blanket, a defence against the world, and an inert “friend” who would never contradict me.

So has that all changed since I’ve transitioned? Yes, but in slightly subtle ways. This is a kind of experimental bit of thinking here folks, but let me try and explain what I mean. My interest in music, for example, is kind of what I might define as “open-ended geekiness”, because the more you get interested in it the more possibilities open up.

I started as a child by liking Lonnie Donegan (you must hear his version of Frankie and Johnny) and Cliff Richard (well, I was a UK child of the sixties). But following my nose for interesting and different sounds has led me, to give a randomish selection, to Michael Nesmith’s post-Monkees career, Vaughan Williams, Little Feat, Maria Muldaur, the Thompson and Wainwright dynasties, Duke Ellington, David Lindley, Brian Wilson, Ian Dury, Bonnie Raitt, Aretha Franklin, Goldfrapp, Natalie Merchant, Mint Royale (check out their version of the Ask the Family theme tune, I’m not kidding!), Soft Cell, Stevie Wonder, Timbuk 3, June Tabor, Billie Holiday, fantastic film composers like Bernard Herrmann, and the genius of Delia Derbyshire (whose work is known by almost everyone in the UK but whose name is known by almost none). I’ve left you a lot of stuff to look up there but with no links – consider it homework!

So although you could be a jazz obsessive (and there’s nothing wrong with that anyway) in my case music keeps steering me through more and more interesting doors and is endlessly rewarding. Latest joyous discovery? The Decemberists a few days ago.

I could write a similar list about movies, particularly after Basil Edwards, my English teacher at secondary school, introduced us to foreign movies. I have a wide-ranging interest in movies and television. And in due course, when home video technology began to develop in interesting directions, my interest in movies and TV also developed into an interest in these technologies, and in collecting.

I was one of the relatively few people in the UK to buy a laserdisc player in the 1980s (for younger readers, these were early double-sided videodiscs the size of old vinyl Lps). LD became a relatively successful format in the USA when it was re-focused at movie buffs, but was pretty unsuccessful in the UK so you had to be obsessed to find players and discs. And over time, with the development of DVD and other home cinema technologies, I became even more obsessed with getting a really good home set-up, with surround sound and based around the first really decent plasma TV in the UK (which I did, around 2002).

And I’m not dissing it – it’s great to watch movies on. But a couple of years after I’d set up my nice plasma, surround amp and speakers, DVD player, personal video recorder, then along came High Definition and Blu-Ray. And I felt that pressure, to keep up at the leading edge of tech etc etc.

Only I know that this kind of obsessive geekism was, in part, one of the ways in which I was avoiding facing up to my transness – I had a comforting hobby which was a lot of fun, and didn’t involve people much, and kept changing/evolving etc. But it was secondary to the real interest, which was movies – it was about a better way of seeing them to be sure. But on the technology side, I guess I’m focussing on the fact that the technology was “obedient” and “loyal” and did what I wanted – and the outside world wasn’t like that and I always felt would bite me if I was honest about my gender identity.

That may sound a weird connection to make, but I think it’s about putting energy into something else because I was too scared to put in energy to dealing with my true self. And the reason I think there’s a connection is that although my love of music continues, and my love of movies continues, my obsession with keeping on the teetering edge of technology has gone.

Initially I thought it was just because transition keeps you very busy – at this stage it’s like having a second full-time job. But actually, I don’t need the comfort blanket anymore. Because the other thing that has changed is I am much less of a loner than I used to be, and much more of a social person. To put it like that is something of a caricature, ‘cos I did have a lot of fun with friends and family pre-transition, but it’s an interesting difference of emphasis. A lot of preoccupations from before I acknowledged I was a woman have changed, shifted, in some cases disappeared. And a lot of new interests have started to arise because, I think, I am free to be myself (my true self) for the first time in my life.

So the good geeky bits (which I use in life and work) are preserved, and the geeky bits about hiding from the world because I was scared of it have receded. I was much shyer trying to live as a man than I am now I’ve accepted I was always a woman and am able to live as one.

But there’s another, final dimension to this, which is that I wanted to try and be creative before I transitioned – to write, to perform, but I was generally too scared to have a proper go at it. So I went to work for a comics/SF distribution company, rather than try and write. And I acquired a huge music collection rather than play music. Everything always at one, or more, remove. I got dragged into doing a bit of writing in the end, but only ‘cos other people believed in me, not ‘cos I did.

I am not trying to generalize about trans people here. Many are very successful before they transition and I was not totally unsuccessful, but I made a lot of early career/life choices based on having a very low opinion of myself. But lot of trans people do feel very stuck, because they can’t see how to engage fully with life. And they find ways round it, but they are often ways which involving hiding and denying their truest self, and therefore not taking opportunities when they present themselves.

That’s changed for me now – I have a sense of life and creative opportunities opening up, just as I wished they would in my younger years because, finally, I believe in myself. And my geekiness has evolved – it no longer dominates me, it’s just part of my toolkit.

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S– is my rock ‘n’ roll lodger. He only stays with me for slightly over a month but that month is a lot of fun. He is a friend of a friend of a friend. I mention to Christine (my Kensington Drama Club chum) that I am between lodgers, and she tells me about this Austrian musician who is coming to London to seek fame and fortune, and needs a place to stay while doing so. I am intrigued by the possibility and it means I don’t immediately have to seek another long-term lodger (all of whom, in their own way, prove stressful) so Christine passes my details up the line of communication and in due course the deal is done.

S– is tall and blond with the chiselled good looks and muscular build of an Austrian cross-country skier. I, at the time, am 5ft 3in tall and dumpy. We make an odd, but happy household. S– is determined to make it in pop music and is of the conviction, shared by many before and since, that London is the place to do it. He has made a demo tape and has come over for a month (in the end he stays for slightly longer) to hawk his tape round the capital’s record companies.

The eighties is known, among other things, for brittle electronic pop which trumpets its studio origins with high, but harsh production values. Many records of the time fit that description but they are mostly made by British, American or occasionally, thanks to Stock, Aitken and Waterman (if “thanks” is the word) Australian. The most notable European success in this arena is the Norwegian band a-ha. The immortal (in spirit but sadly not in fact) John Walters, then producer of John Peel’s radio programme, had a joke about how they got their name, to the effect that when they finished their first gig, a non-plussed and underwhelmed audience paused, and then said thoughtfully, “a-ha”. Anyway S– looks a bit like someone from a-ha, and his music is hi-energy pop, but with vocals delivered in a reasonably strong Austrian accent. Beth, on hearing a song of his which features the word “Hollywood” quite extensively opines that his vocal delivery makes this sound like “Holyrood”, which she finds consistenly amusing.

Anyway, it is a well-done demo – sounds professional and well-put together. The first thing S– does on arrival is to take his tape to a duplication house and get many copies made. In the ensuing weeks he delivers the tapes in person to pretty much every record company in London (in those days there are a lot of them) subsequently chasing them up by phone or in person.

We get on fine. He is a very nice chap, we have a shared interest in music, although possibly not the same music, but I play him the odd thing I like. After a few days we fall into a ritual of watching a movie each evening to keep him entertained. At the time I have one of the original laserdisc players, the height of  technological sophistication in the early eighties despite Philips designing it to resemb;e a top-loading washing machine. Laserdiscs, for our younger readers, were large videodiscs (the ancestor of DVD) which looked like 12-inch vinyl records with added silver bling. Vinyl records, for our younger readers … oh never mind.

Anyway, each evening we watch a movie – I choose them carefully and S– likes most of my choices. Initially this is just to keep him entertained, but as the month progresses, the record company rejections start to mount up, and the movies become increasingly a form of moral support – another crap day trying to break into the music biz, never mind, let’s watch Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Increasingly I find myself trying to bolster his flagging spirits.

It is during his stay that I have what will prove to be my last crossdressing adventure for many years. My colleague Elizabeth at QMW invites me to a fancy dress party. I ask if S– can come as well – a party to cheer him up. I have not crossdressed since entering my lodger era, but the prospect of this party makes me sorely tempted. In the end I shove some (rather glam) clothes and make-up in a bag, rather lamely suggesting to S– that they are some of  L–‘s which she has left behind. S– does not bother with a costume. When we get to the party I scurry off upstairs to get ready, leaving S–, I later discover, to fall heavily and hopelessly in love with Elizabeth (it is her boyfriend’s party apart from anything else). I then emerge dolled up and have a rather wonderful time – a lot of the girls at the party are cool about it and come and talk to me (although I still strenously deny any suggestion that I am a crossdresser). I generally have a wonderful time, apart from one drunken lout who keeps trying to grab my genitals.

As we return to Walthamstow, I talk with S– in the cab and it’s clear he knows I am trans and is cool about it – nonetheless I stil have to strenously deny it. Little do I suspect that, in any case, I am about to be forcefully shoved back into the closet by looming events.

S– gets glummer, and glummer. No record company shows any sign of biting. Rejection letters arrive regularly in the post. I show him movies and play him music. Unexpectedly, he really warms to Fairport Convention’s Heyday. This is a collection of Radio 1 sessions from the late sixties, many for John Peel. I first obtained it as a bootleg tape, but it subsequently gets a legitimate release. The songs dates mostly from Fairport’s early, pre folk-rock, West Coast-influenced days – there are covers of songs by Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Richard and Mimi Farina. Which is ironic, because …

Most of the rejection letters are form letters, but then one arrives that isn’t. It’s from Joe Boyd, sometime Floyd/Fairport/Thompson/McGarrigle producer, who at the time has his own independent record company called Hannibal Records on which many early, key world music releases appear. Boyd’s tone in the letter is both amused, and incredulous. He wonders whether S– has ever listened to any of the records he has produced. It’s an amusing,  slightly acid letter which concludes with the assertion that S–‘s tape is the single least appropriate demo (in terms of Boyd’s career and musical interests) that he has ever received. Given the tone of the letter, S– is reasonably philosophical.

Shortly afterwards, he returns to Austria, without a pop career, his romantic ambitions for Elizabeth sadly unfulfilled. Amidst all the other lodgers, his stay with me has been unadulterated good fun, and a brief respite from the very tough times which are starting to loom.

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