I recently ran into a woman I’d known at university, some 25 years ago. She was performing a one-woman cabaret, and it wasn’t until half way through the show that I realised who I was watching.
She was someone I’d dated at college, pre-transition, when she (I’ll call her K) had been A. And male. We both operated under an entirely different set of assumptions in 1991.
Meeting her again, I was sent back to a miserable time in my life when there seemed far fewer possibilities and I was deeply unhappy about my life.
“You’re C” she said, as I walked towards her after the show, recognising me immediately. We talked for a while of our lives together at Middlesex Poly, studying fine art and art history.
“You seemed really repressed in those days” she said.
No, I thought, I wasn’t repressed, I was depressed. And as lovely as A was back in the day, (and he was) he was part of why I was depressed.
In those days A created high-camp screen prints of Joan Collins, and his room in Turnpike Lane was decorated with colourful Bollywood prints and an enormous pink Elvis rug. Although we dated a few times, hanging out at the Scala Cinema (where I attempted to impress him with screenings of Pink Narcissus, Kenneth Anger and possibly Fassbinder), our planets were not aligned.
As a cross-dressing punk-rocker, I had few effective role models. Most of the people I looked up to were gay men – Morrissey, Marc Almond, Denton Welch, Derek Jarman, John Waters, Jean Genet. All exciting and transgressive figures. On the other hand the gay men I actually KNEW were rather conservative and mainstream … they seemed obsessed with soap operas and fifties Hollywood movies.
Mainstream gay London life wasn’t my London life. I didn’t know at the time that both A and I were dressing in drag, living large parts of our lives as women, enjoying the freedom that living in the capital gave us. But we weren’t enjoying the same parts of London in the same ways. And I wasn’t gay.
Not being gay was problematic. At the time ‘gay’ seemed like the only option for someone whose culture, politics and aesthetic were like mine. But this was before I knew about ‘queer’, a term with which I soon became acquainted and which changed my life.
In 1991 I was truly trapped by terminology. My life and A’s life, although similar in some ways, were miles apart in others. While I presume he was looking at gay life, I was looking in another direction altogether.
I was writing for another music paper, Sounds, and wrote a queerzine, Brown*Star (much influenced by the great queer writing coming out of the USA and which I heard about via Factsheet Five magazine).
I spent four nights out of five at small gigs around London, watching bands I’ve come to love in cute little pubs. PJ Harvey’s trio at The Dome, Manic Street Preachers at The Falcon, Thee Headcoats/Headcoatees at the St. John’s Tavern in Archway.
It was peak Riot Grrrl, and I saw and loved Huggy Bear, Bloody Sausage, Bikini Kill, Mambo Taxi, Voodoo Queens, L7, Hole, Babes in Toyland, Stereolab, Daisy Chainsaw, Curve, Silverfish, Sun Carriage …
While A was dancing to S-Express in lycra catsuits, I was bunking into women-only gigs in Camden wearing a ratty nylon wig, and badly dyed Littlewoods petticoats bought for 10p in charity shops. In this way I saw Courtney Love play her first solo gig, and fell into an argument with one of Huggy Bear, who accused me of ‘trying on oppression as a lifestyle’.
Acceptance of trans lifestyles had a long way to go, even (or especially) amongst the riot grrrl community, but it was feminist art history and riot grrrl politics which formed my queer world view.
My art life was all about Guerrilla Girls and Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman and Jenny Holzer. The influence of Diane Arbus and Lisette Model began to inform my photography. I wrote about Madonna for the Modern Review, and my art history thesis was a feminist critique of televised football.
I was living, without really being aware of it, a very queer life. It just wasn’t a gay life (and it certainly wasn’t a straight life).
Another friend who had a huge influence was Mona, guitarist and songwriter for punk-trans queens Six Inch Killaz. This is a band you really need to know about. A drum machine, a couple of junkies, two street ‘girls’, deranged and beautiful, Six Inch Killaz were years ahead of their time and bound to lose.
Mona was the only person I knew who cross-dressed AND loved punk, comics and trash culture. Mona was the first queen I ever met who thought guitars were sexier than soap stars.
I don’t know if it’s easier for young trannies nowadays than it was then. It’s always been difficult, and it’s pointless to make direct comparisons.
But the advice this old drag queen would give to young queers is this. There are other lives, other cultures, other role models. Use RuPaul’s Drag Race as a gateway drug, but make sure you end up mainlining your own culture.
Drag is a drug, but use it responsibly and to open up your mind.