A Prehistory of Grace, Part II

"fuckin heavy ain't it," as Kevin Rowland says

I thought I might continue the narrative thread from the other day - people were sweet about it - but of course, tell me if the self-indulgence becomes ridiculous - eek - so here’s part two. The problem is, since my task is reviewing a life from the perspective of transness, I don’t really know whether to move forward or backwards. I could talk about what happened after I left college, but the problem is that, in a sense, that feels like regression rather than progress. Progress, for anyone inclined to think psychoanalytically, means moving further into the thicket of one’s past. I showed you Grace at the age of 19, and progress would mean showing you a picture of her at 17, and then 13, and then 8, and then finally to show you a picture of myself as a gloriously feminine baby, already undeniably and irresistibly bound to the course of action that brings me here. I’ve got one picture of myself as a 16 year old girl, and actually I see more continuity between that and myself than I do the picture I talked about last time. By which I mean, I looked cuter. Anyway I will show you this picture another time, today I am feeling one of my rare blushes.

In the background of this quest for origins, of course, is an injunction that tells me I must find Grace in my past, that if I don’t then I am living deceptively or pathologically. I am supposed to say “I always knew,” when the truth is that I didn’t always know. I sometimes suspected; occasionally, I wished. I played intermittently, and sometimes I did know - sometimes I knew nothing else; sometimes I would catch myself in a moment of unplanned sincerity, gripping the arm of whatever companion was either entertained or vaguely disgusted by the appearance of me in a dress, and saying “this is real, you know; I’m acting like this is an act but it’s real.” I often think “I always knew” is an especially unreasonable standard by which to rank the legitimacy of various transitions, because it implies two things - (1) that it was always true; (2) that we have consistent access to truths about ourselves. Even if (1) is true - and I have my doubts, both in my own case and as a matter of political strategy - (2) is obviously nonsense. Even the knowledge of one’s own desires - let’s say, of one’s sexual object choices - is subject to refinement, even if the rough contours remain consistent. I always knew I liked girls, for example, but what did that knowledge actually consist of until I had met some actual girls, and learned in real detail, by trial and error, exactly what it was that I liked. 

I liked boys, too, but much more infrequently - I liked them when they were posh and gay and clever, and had more complex feelings about them when, as was more usually the case even at my posh boys’ school, they were crude and beefy. I didn’t grow up with a dad and was always profoundly grateful for the fact; still, I cannot unironically appreciate a dad. Some of that changed when I started dating - which I did chaotically and omnivorously from the get-go - my tastes shifted from elegant scarves to oaky legs and leonine manes, but it was still a minority of my interest. (Also, “dating” is such an Americanism. That’s not really what I was doing, until I got to the US.) My first kiss with a boy, aged 15 or so, was mesmerizing partly because of the meatiness of the boy in question. Somehow, a kid my age had more stubble than I ever reached with twenty years of testosterone, and I remember his bristles scraping my face, his teeth biting into me. It was passionate and messy and hot, and I wanted more than he was willing to give me, but even so I knew that the hardness I wanted from boys was less important than the softness I wanted from girls. 

Somewhat to my surprise, and everyone else’s disdain. It was wrong for someone so conspicuously feminine to also want to date girls. One day, I came back from the bathroom to find that some waggish schoolboy rogue had written “I act gay to get chicks” on my pencil case. It was a fair cop, to be honest, which is one reason I’m a little wary of that criticism when it is made of others. Everyone knew - my mother, everyone at school, everyone- that I should have been dating boys. There was a soft, condescending attitude towards gay men that underpinned that expectation - gay men are sweet and flowery, and Jos is sweet and flowery - that felt like the exact opposite of the kind of relation I wanted with boys, and also (I was ashamed to admit) just not really my deal. So although I can’t say “I always knew x,” I can say “I never knew not-x,” and perhaps even “I always knew not-y.” 

None of which was quite what I planned to write about. I had decided to talk about what happened after college, and why I stopped wearing make-up and dresses (mostly) for over a decade. This story makes me sad to contemplate, because I feel an odd sense of failed obligation, a sense that I neglected the little 19 year old Grace, who was just beginning to figure some things out. Does one really have an ethical duty to care for oneself? I’m not sure I’m that Californian yet, but anyway it makes me sad to reflect on what I chose over that part (this part) of my life. 

Have you ever had the experience of realizing, mid-anecdote, that you are telling a story wrong, that you are overstating or misrepresenting something, or that there is an important detail that you are choosing to overlook? Here is the story I told people throughout my 20s: “oh yes, I had a very genderqueer youth, I wore dresses through college, and it was all very playful and experimental. I’m happy I had those experience, but eventually I got my first job after college and the real world intervened. Then it was back to reality!” For many years, I often used to say “oh I would probably be trans if I were younger but we didn’t really have that in Birmingham in the 90s, or Oxford (!) or Brighton (!!!) in the 00s, or Philadelphia during the Obama presidency...” On the one hand, it was a feeling that actually transitioning was impossible - the best one could do was approximate with some kind of pastiche or subversion, and that didn’t interest me, or struck me as conservative or something. Instead I got very into being professionally subversive, and outflanking anyone I could with ever more edgy and oblique self-descriptions, all of which were hokey and easily seen through.

One day, a couple of weeks after I took my last drink, I was telling this story (you can guess to whom) and I realized I had missed out a crucial detail: what was the first job? I left Oxford in 2004, having graduated with a strong first class honors degree in English - stronger than I deserved; like many alcoholics, I’m good at cramming for exams - and there was only one job I wanted - I wanted to work in a pub. I was sick of Oxford, its pretensions and its filigree, and I wanted to return to what I could postulate were my roots - they weren’t - by taking low-paying shift work and committing to it with a zeal that I had previously given to perhaps Byron and perhaps Joyce, but that mostly I had withheld from my studies on the basis of a spurious class resentment. Not that such resentment is in general spurious, but mine was - I arrived at Oxford with a posh accent, having come from a posh school. True, I had been an oik scholarship kid to that school, but I’d been there since I was 11, and as much as I hated the poshness with which it had marked me, I also knew on some level that it had sunk to the core; had eaten and digested whatever version of me pre-existed King Edward’s.

So, a sort of bogus proliness propelled me away from London and pubs sounded ideal to a young alcohol enthusiast, because one has an almost unfettered access to alcohol and, if one works carefully, can be drunk throughout the day. I’d known this since working at the King’s Arms at Oxford, when I tended to cash out my wages for beer at the end of every shift, so that I could keep drinking for about twelve hours every day. After leaving Oxford for Brighton, I showed up for my first shift at the Richard the Fourth pub in a tidy brown dress, perhaps with some cute little hair thing in. My mother, knowing something was up with all these dresses, but having no idea how to ask me about them, said of this one “I like you in dresses; they really accentuate the masculinity of your frame.” It really was sweet, though the opposite of what I wanted to hear on both counts. The bar manager, meanwhile, an unpleasant older heterosexual named Richard, was apoplectic: “what the FUCK do you think you are wearing; get the FUCK out of here and don’t come back until you are dressed like a normal person!” So: I left, I put on a t-shirt and jeans, I came back, and that was that. The “real world.”

When I got sober, I lost the certainty that the real world - the world of jobs, of bad men with money, the serious world - had stopped me from doing what I wanted to do. I realized that I had chosen not to continue to dress that way, or to try to work out why I wanted to dress that way. For one thing, my employment prospects were pretty good, and if I had been at a job that had felt continuous with my college years, rather than discontinuous, I would probably have dressed continuously too. Even at the Richard the Fourth, I could probably have stood my ground and gotten away with it, but doing so would have entailed acknowledging that presenting in a feminine way was actually important to me, and what was very clear was that getting fucked up was just more important, infinitely more important. And so I left that awkward teen behind and turned her into a quirky backstory, until such a time as I could think to do differently.

I’ll tell that story sometime I suppose, of how I got from “I am telling this story wrong” to “I am a girl now,” but for today I just want to spend a moment mourning, as I do often, that fantasy of the real world that sewed my life up around the one big wound. That real world was a fiction I used to stop myself from feeling. And though the world I am living in now is defamed, publicly, as a deception or a falsehood, I ground my experience and my claims about the world in a kind of realness that the fiction was designed to keep at bay. I am a girl that dreamed I was a boy, but that dream is over. And Jesus, since this got a lot heavier (and longer) than I expected, here’s that picture of me as a teenage lesbian. I like her. I wish I’d gotten a chance to spend a bit more time with her.