Saturday 24 May 2014

Women with Beards

My recent article on Conchita Wurst (and all of the discussion she has provoked) got me thinking in a more general way about women with beards. In fact there are many variations on this notion, which I hope to explore briefly below, and round up with a discussion at the end.

The History Books

La Mujer Barbuda
There are two bearded women which I am aware of from the history books. First, the semi-legendary Saint Wilgefortis, dating from the 14th century. I've actually written about Wilgefortis before in this blog. According to Wikipedia, no precise details of Wilgefortis' life can be verified. The legend is that, as a beautiful teenager, she was promised in marriage to a cruel nobleman. She prayed to God to deliver her from this fate, and promptly sprouted a beard. This angered her father and he had her crucified, and her traditional depiction is a crucified woman, with a beard (often with one shoe missing).

A more pragmatic (and to me, plausible) explanation is that some statues of the crucified Jesus were created, wearing a robe instead of the expected loincloth, and the legend of a crucified, bearded woman was cooked up to explain this away.

The next figure from history has been immortalised by the artist Jusepe de Ribera, in his 1631 portrait entitled La Mujer Barbuda (The Bearded Woman). Take a look at the painting. To me, it looks exactly like a portrait of a man; there is nothing feminine at all about the face, including the male pattern of hair at the forehead.

My first impression of this portrait was that Ribera had deliberately painted a man, dressed in a gown and suckling an infant. Then I started to read more. It turns out that the story of the figure in the painting is well-known and corroborated. She actually was a bearded woman; the miserable-looking guy in the background is her husband. Her name was Magdalena Ventura from Abruzzi, and at the time of the portrait, she was 52 years old. She bore her husband three sons before growing a beard at the age of 37. Some aspects of her life are recorded in Latin on the stone tablet at the bottom right of the picture.

Annie Jones
Some aspects of the painting are allegorical: at 52, she would be too old to bear a child or breast-feed, but Ribera has included this aspect to deliberately underline the female sex of the subject of the portrait. Ribera also had a reputation for deliberately painting accurate but cruel depictions of people with disfigurements, such as The Club-Footed Boy. What this says to me is that Ribera's depiction was probably reasonably accurate. Did he go out of his way to enhance the apparent masculinity of the image? It's hard to say for sure; I think probably not. It's clear, however, that he didn't make any effort to flatter the subject.

The Circus Freak

The next, and most widely-known, archetype of the bearded woman is the Circus Freak.

Freak shows entered their heyday in the 19th and early 20th centuries, exhibiting malformed, and disfigured humans as objects of scorn, ridicule and sometimes loathing. Dwarves, giants, conjoined twins and other rare anomalies (such as Joseph Merrick, the "Elephant Man") were staples of this form of popular entertainment. In this environment, bearded women were right at home, as this example Annie Jones, shows. I can't imagine what those performers were forced to do, in order to prove that they were actually women (and not simply men in frocks), but I suspect it was degrading and unpleasant in the extreme.

Jennifer Miller
A debate continues to this day over the role of such shows. Some showmen, such as Tom Norman, argued that his shows allowed people who were unable to work normally to provide a living for themselves. (Indeed, some people continue to deliberately exhibit themselves in this manner even today, such as the performer Black Scorpion). Critics argued that the shows were cruel, exploitative and inhuman. Eventually, of course, they were banned, but I see their echoes today in documentaries about conjoined twins, or people with morbid obesity. I think the public appetite for gawping at unfortunate people has not, in general, gone away.

Modern Examples

This brings me on to some modern examples. The first one I came across was Jennifer Miller, whom I saw in a TV documentary. Miller's beard started to slowly grow in in her early twenties. According to this interview, she has had an ambivalent relationship with it ever since.
Miller: I embraced the idea of it right away, and then had on-and-off relationships with it over the years. I basically believed that it was a good idea to keep it, but that it wasn’t always easy. I felt stronger and weaker about wearing it depending on what was happening. If at some point I were just feeling more vulnerable in general, that would make it harder. If I was worried about getting a job, I might feel some doubt about my commitment to keeping it.

Mariam with Harnam Kaur
Miller has worked as a circus performer, but also a writer and a university lecturer.

And then, more recently, a woman identified only as Mariam was interviewed on British television. Born in Germany, Mariam's beard started to grow after the birth of her son, 28 years ago. According to this article, she used to pluck out each hair every day with tweezers, but eventually decided to let it grow out.

Mariam keeps a blog of her own. She is quite open about how difficult it is to live as a woman with a beard. She writes:
Mariam: I remember, that when I was a child, I always wanted to be a boy. Boys had more freedom than girls. Could be more wild and climb on trees and do all these handycraft things that I liked.

In our family it was better to be a male, because then everybody believed in the success and intelligence of this person.

Meanwhile I appreciate myself as a woman and I see what I can do as a woman, and that I am not better or worse than a man. And I must say I am not all the time aware about being a woman. I feel like a being. And I would say some of my abilities you can name male others female. I do not like this labeling with male and female. I would wish we could just be ourselves and not to be fixed on any gender or sex.
Alex Drummond
Mariam describes unpleasant incidents in public places, such as people taking pictures or video of her on their phones, without permission. As a result, she (naturally) avoids very public places.


Until now, I have considered only genetic women with beards. But I can't help finding an overlap with genderqueer: an expression of gender which is neither male nor female, but both, neither, or any variation you like. Is a woman who deliberately sports a beard genderqueer? Maybe, I guess.

Conchita Wurst has, without perhaps being genderqueer herself, driven that aesthetic into the public eye. But what about people who live that life all the time, and will continue to do so once Conchita's star has faded?

Photographer Alex Drummond is one such person.
Drummond: Being transgender gives me a unique perspective on my work. Born as ‘male’ but having always identified as female I nowadays embrace genderqueer as a way of living authentically as a trans-female.

Some people will live in a full time presentation of their preferred gender, others will live part-time. And a whole new movement is emerging of people who are living between genders, embracing the potentials of gender-queer and gender-fluidity.
Part of Drummond's website is given over to a blog, but as you could expect from a photographer, it's quite image-heavy. I wonder to myself whether Drummond experiences the same public reaction as Mariam? And is it a problem?

Some people seem to just like the deliberate androgyny, the deliberate mixture of male and female, that you get by combining an essentially feminine aesthetic, with an undeniable statement of masculinity: a beard. One example seems to be Bulgarian singer Azis, pictured here. Azis is apparently another Eurovision alumnus, having co-performed Bulgaria's entry in the 2006 competition, which finished a resounding 17th.

And I guess finally there is farce, the deliberate use of the beard with female costume as an instrument of amusement or comedy. As I have frequently mentioned on this blog, I don't think crossdressing as a vehicle for comedy is funny. Likewise, I find deliberate farce to do with crossdressing to be, at best, in poor taste, and at worst, hurtful.
Richard Branson: seriously?

Nonetheless, it's hard to get too steamed up by Richard Branson's performance. After losing a bet with Air Asia chief executive Tony Fernandez, Branson had himself made over as a Virgin stewardess, complete with uniform, high heels and fishnet stockings, and served drinks on a 6-hour flight from Australia to Kuala Lumpur. I can't say that he looks especially gorgeous, but I admire his courage and his sense of humour in agreeing to honour the bet (and no-one could accuse him of somehow not fulfilling his end of the bargain).

What do I think about all this?

My first thought, on seeing photographs of Jennifer Miller, Mariam and Harnam Kaur, is that they look very strange. Without doubt, the juxtaposition of a beard-- that most masculine characteristic-- on a woman, causes a slight jolt of surprise, which makes you look again. For whatever reasons: hormonal, or genetic or just plain bad luck, it is clear that women can also grow beards.

I am certain that the women who keep the beard represent the tip of the iceberg. (On Mariam's blog, some of the commentators admire her courage, while admitting that they rid themselves of their own heavy facial hair). I think therefore there are probably many hundreds of women out there who deal with the facial hair with wax, or electrolysis, or laborious plucking. I can completely understand this: the societal pressure must be huge.

That makes me think that for those women who embrace their beards, there must be something different that makes them willing to resist that societal pressure. Unlike Annie Jones a century or more ago, women in the 21st century have a choice about whether to have a beard. Having it permanently removed would be reasonably expensive, and reasonably uncomfortable, but certainly doable.

For bearded women, it must come to be their defining characteristic. It reminds me of the old joke about the two men in the pub overlooking the little village in Scotland. One laments to the other that, despite his lifetime of contribution to the life of the village, they still haven't honoured him with a decent nickname. "Do they call me Hamish the boat builder? Or Hamish the roofer? No! But you shag one sheep...!"

The same is true of bearded women. Do we know these women for their other accomplishments or qualities? No. The reason they are here for me to write about is their outlandishness. Is that what they like? The notoriety? Does that make up for the whispers and the stares and the rude picture-taking? Is that why they keep their beards?

And yet, Mariam speaks on her blog of simply wanting to live as herself. Isn't that exactly what I want? What other trans people want? Doesn't it bother us when people focus on why we cross-dress? Isn't it enough that we say that the why doesn't matter?

What Alex Drummond and other genderqueer people do is (from my perspective) a also bit weird-looking and a bit inexplicable. And yet, is what I do not a bit weird-looking and a bit inexplicable from someone else's perspective? How can I plead for sympathy and acceptance while not granting it (automatically!) to someone else?

Comments welcome, whether you are bearded or unbearded. If you are interested in women with big muscles, why not read my article about Female Bodybuilding? You might also be interested in the related, but different topics, Men in Skirts, and Men with Long Nails.

Addendum 17th July 2014

If you're going to Saaaan Francisco...
A local news website has reported that men with flowers in their beards are "the latest hipster trend".

Apparently "spreading like wildfire" across image-sharing websites, the website gives 10 examples, captioned with more than a hint of mockery.

Though it doesn't especially do it for me, I don't really see what the fuss is about.

Meanwhile, I have been discovering that one of the reasons Harnam Kaur (above) does not remove her beard is that her particular religion, Sikhism, mandates complete acceptance of the body in the way it was born, and forbids the cutting of hair for both men and women. I think that helps to explain her motivation. For some people, that must be a pretty tough commandment to live up to, and I salute Harnam Kaur for her adherence to it.

Monday 12 May 2014

Wurst Case Scenario

For those of you who don't live in Europe, the Eurovision Song Contest is an annual tournament of pop music which involves most European nations (and a few which are not, strictly speaking, in Europe, such as Israel). The rules are that each country submits a brand new song by a chosen artist (often a newcomer act), which must be performed live on the night of the contest.

What's the Wurst that could happen?
The contest has given rise, over the years since 1956, to some very famous acts, such as ABBA, and even Celine Dion, singing for Switzerland in 1988. However, the tendency of some acts to compete in bizarre costume and with bizarre lyrics (who could forget the majestic poetry of Ding-a-Dong?), lends the entire contest an air of camp, verging at times on the farcical. It's screened live all over Europe, and it's a wonderful evening's entertainment, albeit pretty low-brow.

The other problem with the contest is the tendency of countries to vote for their political allies, regardless of the artistic merit of the songs. Each country, including the minnows like Malta, is allocated an equal weight of voting in the contest. This tends to make for some tension, as occasionally obviously good songs get gradually nudged downward in the rankings by political voting.

This year, of course, the winner was Austria, whose artist, Conchita Wurst, won by a comfortable margin. So far, so normal. What is different about this contest (and the reason I am writing about it) is that Conchita Wurst is a drag queen, with a beard. (I love that in German, wurst means sausage). Take a look:

Before Wurst even sang in the contest, she came under fire from Russia, Belarus and Armenia, who demanded she withdraw. Russian lawmaker Vitaly Milonov branded Eurovision a "hotbed of sodomy", while Armenian competitor Aram Mp3 described her as "not natural". Russia, in particular, has been institutionally homophobic for many years.

If the Wurst comes to the Wurst
Though I haven't listened to all the songs for this year, I don't think this one, Rise Like a Phoenix, is all that brilliant. Even allowing for the handful of songs by fishwives in knitted shawls with accordions, which we are usually treated to in Eurovision, I can't believe this one, though it's all well and good, is actually the best in the competition. (The second-place song, Calm After the Storm by the Netherlands' Common Linnets, is, I think, a much better song).

And that leads me to believe that something else is responsible for Wurst winning the contest.

The most obvious thing which strikes one about Wurst is her appearance. Conchita Wurst is the drag persona of Tom Neuwirth. As a woman (i.e. without the beard), she would be absolutely dazzling; a knockout. On the other hand, the beard looks very odd indeed, very disturbing and out of place (while everything else, from the exquisitely curved eyelashes to the lip gloss, to the flowing gowns and fabulous shoes, screams "gorgeous woman!").

But perhaps gorgeous drag queens are too common; too mainstream? Perhaps an "ordinary" drag queen wouldn't have captured everyone's attention. The beard, without doubt, is the hook. The beard is also cosmetically enhanced; it looks just too perfect. And yet, Wurst is beautiful, in a strange and unusual way. Like chilli pepper on fruit salad, the whole package kinda works. I think it may be because she reminds me of another figure, with long flowing hair, a light beard, and deep, soulful eyes.

Wurst bears an unmistakeable resemblance to popular depictions of Jesus. There is no evidence that this is intentional, but it is (at least to my eyes) inescapable. Before you deluge me with hate mail, I intend to draw no further parallels between those two figures (and other commentators have noted a resemblance to a much more secular figure, Kim Kardashian).

Wurst hasn't been the first gender-blurring competitor in Eurovision. Israeli transsexual Dana International won the competition in 1998, with her song, Diva. Wurst isn't even the first bearded woman in the contest: France's 2008 entrant, Sebastian Tellier, had a backing group of five women with false beards (to match his natural one), when he sang his song Divine.

Kim and Conchita. Which is Wurst?
When she won the competition, a delighted and emotional Wurst took the microphone:
Wurst: This night is dedicated to everyone who believes in a future of peace and freedom. You know who you are - we are unity and we are unstoppable.

I dream of a world where we don't have to talk about unnecessary things like sexuality, who you love. I felt like tonight Europe showed that we are a community of respect and tolerance.
Wurst's particular appearance is more in alignment with genderqueer than anything else I can think of. Nonetheless, from her personal website, it seems clear that tolerance is her most deliberate and explicit message. And for this, I think she deserves our congratulation and support. Though her motivations for wearing a frock may differ from my own, I think she is doing positive things to further acceptance of trans people in general.

And I think the reason that Wurst won Eurovision was the combination of those two things. First, that gimmick: an outrageous bearded drag queen, eye-catching and flamboyant, beautiful and proud. This might not have been enough to do it, but set against the background of Russian homophobia, it gave the more progressive Western nations the opportunity to poke one in the eye of those stuffy old Russkies; a chance which they couldn't pass up.

By competition rules, Austria will host the contest next year. At least one commentator is predicting a lot of false beards among the audience!

No sausages were harmed in the writing of this blog post, though some had the Wurst night of their lives. No more puns on the name: I promise!

Addendum 22nd May 2014

Some of my commentators, including Janice, below, have pointed out that Conchita Wurst's name, although it translates as sausage, was chosen because of the German phrase es ist mir Wurst, meaning it's all the same to me. Whilst I accept this argument, I can't help thinking that sausage is also an excellent drag queen name, because of it's suggestive nature. Mind you, in the context of drag queens, it's hard to find the name of any fruit, vegetable or foodstuff which is free of suggestive connotation!

But taking the name literally, one Austrian butcher has produced an actual Conchita Wurst, a sausage with her face on every slice. How wonderful is that?

Meanwhile, the trans blogosphere has been convulsed with debate about the exact place (if any) that Conchita Wurst occupies, and whether she is doing us good, or harm, by her antics.

One viewpoint seems to be that Conchita Wurst is the female drag persona of a male entertainer, and that therefore Wurst isn't trans at all. A second viewpoint seems to be that, as a man in a dress, Wurst is perceived as being trans by the general public, whoever they might be, and is (whether we like it or not) going to get lumped in alongside the rest of us crossdressers, transsexuals, and so on. A third viewpoint, from the trans community (and expressed by Tasi in the comment to this article) is that, by deliberately mashing together a beard and a beautiful woman, Wurst is doing harm to the trans community by furthering a popular perception that we are all a bunch of weirdos.

I have been struggling with my own feelings about Wurst, but nobody has put it better than my correspondent Janice Lacey. With her agreement, and building on her comment below, I am quoting her here:
Janice: Firstly let me state that I wasn’t at all impressed with the bearded lady thing and deleted nearly all the posts on the social group I follow referencing it. I personally felt threatened by someone dressing as I like to, and also sporting facial hair. That being said, I eventually put aside my own fears of this subject and dived in with both feet.

I read about a boy with a desire to dress as a girl. I can identify with that. He was restricted from doing so and I can identify with that too. He is teased because of his desires and I can identify with that. At some point, when he had gained the confidence and tough skin one needs to be dual-gendered he creates a character that goes beyond the envelopes of discrimination. Not just wearing a dress, but wearing fabulous dresses. And why not? Just add in the beard to really irritate those that hate him and discriminate against him. Conchita was born.

As Conchita, Tom is allowed to wear a dress. The little boy that only wanted to wear a dress is now allowed to dress as he pleases. The beard, in my opinion, represents the male child. Tom is a performer and loves to sing, and as a drag performer is able to earn a living singing while wearing a dress.

Lastly let me summarize my thoughts: Tom Neuwirth and Conchita Wurst are a threat to me as a trans-gendered person. So much is being said about her being “Trans” that people are going to be looking at me and wondering if I am like her.

I AM MOST DEFINITELY NOT! I stand for something deeper, more significant, more important, and more meaningful!

Whoa there! What did I just say? My statement could also be made by my coworkers, my friends, my parents, my wife, or perhaps your parents, friends, co-workers and wife that can’t accept you as you are completely. How can I be who I am, as both Janice and James, and expect the general populace to accept me while I stand in as judge and jury against someone so totally different from myself? Tom/Conchita is unique, but not all that different from me really.

I vote to support his cause, for in doing so I am released from my own fears.
One of my correspondents wrote of Wurst: She makes us look ridiculous. She's neither man nor woman but a half-assed caricature of both. And while I can completely understand this viewpoint, from someone who wants to look as feminine as possible, I can't help thinking that, actually, that same comment could equally be applied to me, or other crossdressers.

Janice's comment has crystallised it for me. I cannot demand acceptance for myself as a crossdresser, and refuse that same acceptance to someone else who has a different way of presenting themselves.

Friday 9 May 2014

Big Brave Soldier

My recent interview with Treva Askey, a former British soldier who is now transitioning, took place amid my thought processes about transgender people serving in the armed forces. There has actually been quite a lot of discussion about this topic in the press lately.

When I was a child, I was a sensitive boy who cried easily. I remember often being told to be a "big brave soldier". This phrase bristled with me then-- and continues to do so today. My parents were not being cruel: they were simply trying to encourage me to behave in a certain way, which they felt was more appropriate (for the record, it didn't work: I am still a sensitive person and I still cry easily).
Upper lips: stiff

It was clear why they chose this phrase. A soldier is someone who is the archetype of courage, discipline, and moral clarity. It is unspoken, but a soldier, of course, is someone who doesn't struggle with his sexuality, nor with his gender identity.

But, for what it was worth, I realised that, as a child, I was braver than many of my peers in some circumstances. For example, I was untroubled by some things (like big scary bugs) which made others visibly queasy. So this other kid, he can kick a football like a cannon, but can't pick up a spider: why is he considered braver than me? That seemed unfair.

As I have grown older, I have viewed military people with a mixture of both admiration and fear. Admiration, in that (in the main) I admire what they do, protecting the interests of my country and ensuring that my family and I can sleep safe in our beds without worrying about being invaded or bombed or have our way of life brutally suppressed. But also fear, in that they achieve that by learning how to hurt and kill other people, sometimes with truly dreadful efficiency. I find some military types to be overbearing and intimidating.

You will be familiar with the notion that the military has to "break you down" before they "build you up". Nobody enters the military willing to hurt or kill somebody else. The military needs to remove your inhibitions to cause harm, to hurt, to kill, and it does that very precisely: by subjecting you to gruelling physical challenges, to strict and dehumanising rituals, to harsh and disproportionate punishments. And to make it stick, it dresses this up in very attractive guise: flags and uniforms, medals and heroism, music and pageantry, and intense camaraderie.

Of course, it needs to do these things to make you an effective fighting person. You need to learn that you are less important than the whole, and you need to subsume your will to the orders you need to carry out. The military can't work as a democracy: ("Excuse me, sergeant? I don't really think advancing on that hill is a very good idea, when you think about it". "You're quite right, private. Raise your hands if you think we should all go to the pub instead").
Autumn Sandeen

The military also needs to inculcate a very powerful sense of moral clarity. We are the good guys. They are the bad guys. They are not like us: they don't look like us, they don't talk like us, they eat weird foods, they don't worship like us (and in any case, God is on our side). In fact, they're not really human, and that makes it OK to get rid of them.

I am certain that being in the military would cause intolerable psychological harm to me. I prize my individuality extremely highly. My inability to take orders from stupid people would require that I be brutalised until I gave up resisting. And I cannot contemplate the person they would "build me up" into becoming.

But (as I said elsewhere), that's not to say I would have nothing to offer my country. Give me a gun and put me in a uniform, and I would be useless. On the other hand, put me in Bletchley Park with the other misfits, and we will win the war for you. To put it bluntly, I don't need to be broken down before I can be useful! (And my loyalty to my country is not in question).

It is this ability of the military to assign us and them which troubles me. If you are not 100% with us, you are against us. It makes it easy for people in the military who are not quite like "us" to be rejected and brutalised. And who is not quite like "us"? Well, homosexual and transgender people are a good place to start. Private Barry Winchell was bullied and eventually murdered by one of his comrades for dating a male-to-female transwoman.
Discharged for transitioning: Sage Fox

We all know of course, that a man who falls in love with another man (or a man who thinks he was born a woman) is somehow soft, somehow effeminate, somehow morally twisted, and therefore prone to cowardice and treachery. We can't have that in the military. First of all, a man needs to be a real man with no hint of femininity. Second of all, imagine the effect on morale if you are constantly on your guard in case your buddy wants to molest you sexually instead of guarding your back. The solution, of course, is to keep all those queers and gays and trannies out.

These arguments are obviously flawed. The reason is that there are (and have always been) gay and trans people in the military (we can start with the Chevalier D'Eon!). They have in many cases served with distinction, shown great valour, and have sometimes been highly decorated. So much for their intrinsic weaknesses. Second, those reports of soldiers sexually abusing their comrades just haven't materialised. It turns out that your gay buddy is every bit as interested in surviving the conflict alive as you are, and he has no more interest in sexually molesting you than you have of him. So morale hasn't suffered. The military hasn't collapsed amid a shower of pink sparks.

There are hints that the tide is beginning to turn. This article isn't big enough to explore the US military, where acceptance of gay people is on the rise. Instead, it's about trans people, where acceptance lags quite a long way behind. This excellent article in the New York Times by Julia Baird reports that 20% of US trans people have served in the military. This is borne out by my personal experience corresponding with other transgender people. In addition to the military, there are plenty of others who have served in the police and other "masculine" occupations.
Baird: Nine percent of transgender people who have served in the American military report being discharged because of being transgender or gender nonconforming. Almost all of the rest stay quiet for fear of harassment or abuse.

A Harvard study published last year found that most transgender military personnel in America are white, educated and middle-aged. And most eventually transitioned from male to female. It also found that 20 percent of transgender people had served in the military — double the rate of the general population. (There is a theory that many seek “hypermasculine” experiences to suppress their desire to be female.) A University of California survey found almost all — 97 percent — were not able to transition until after they left the service.
And she quotes a female-to-male serviceman whom she identifies only as Ryan:
Ryan: I wear an American uniform and I represent a country supposedly defined by liberty and equality. But my allies are welcome to serve in a way that has most certainly just cost me my livelihood. If these countries’ soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines can serve openly and authentically as transgender women and men, why can’t I?
Still serving: Cate McGregor
And serving officer Captain Sage Fox writes:
Fox:I'm a transgender woman and an Army Officer. I want what everyone who cares about our military and our country should want: The freedom to live our lives in peace, raise our children in safety, and live according to our personal and collective ideals. Without these, what ARE we fighting for?
The first military transwoman I heard of was Jan Hamilton in her famous documentary Sex Change Soldier. Jan served in an elite Special Forces unit, and there is a short sequence in the documentary which shows some of the comments she received from her former comrades after she came out. They are unbelievably painful and hurtful. At the time of this documentary, it wasn't possible to transition and remain serving in the British army, although it now is.

But the second had a slightly more hopeful story. Lieutenant Colonel Cate McGregor came out while serving as a senior (and decorated) officer in the Australian Army. However, her commanding officer refused to accept her resignation when she tendered it, and refuted her claim that she was bringing embarrassment to his office. Although McGregor has continued to serve, she describes the "drumbeat of personal abuse" she has suffered since coming out, and also talks of difficulty explaining things to her wife.
Warrior Princess: Kristin Beck

And most recently, highly decorated US Navy SEAL and transwoman Kristin Beck has published her autobiography, Warrior Princess. Beck is literally festooned with decorations. Her Wikipedia article speculates that its publication has encouraged US Defence officials to reconsider their policy about trans people serving in the military, and Una at TransasCity mentions a study which shows that it would have few negative consequences (although Una points out that the study cannot be considered unbiased, commissioned as it was by billionaire transwoman Jennifer Pritzker-- herself a former Lieutenant Colonel in the US Army). This doesn't seem to be the same study which Julia Baird mentions above. In any case, you can read the whole report here. Most recently, Chuck Hagel, the incumbent US Secretary of Defence, has recommended that the US policy of not allowing transgender people to serve should be reviewed.

Which countries allow people to transition and still serve? Australia, Belgium, Canada, the Czech Republic, Israel, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Thailand, and the United Kingdom. (If you know of any others, please let me know). And of course, my home of New Zealand, which was, I am delighted to say, recently judged the most tolerant of LGBT servicemen and women in an international study (the Brits came joint second). Nonetheless, I suspect that, in general, the bar isn't set very high for this particular contest!

From my own perspective, it seems encouraging that one can survive a couple of decades of military service, and it doesn't grind out all your femininity, all your sensitivity, as many of the above people have shown.

In the grand scheme of things, this is all a very small problem. As far as I can judge, although Australia permits transition while serving, there seem to be only six people to whom this currently applies. And Wikipedia's list of transsexual or transgendered people who have served in the military is pitifully small. Nonetheless, for those few, it's a very big deal indeed, and (as with other areas) I suspect what we see is only the small tip of a very large iceberg.

For those still serving in painful silence, coming out and finally being true to themselves may call for another manifestation of the "big brave soldier".

My thanks to Melissa for drawing my attention to the New York Times article.

For my exclusive interview with Jan Hamilton, now Abigail Austen, click here.

Addendum: 14th September 2016

As of the 1st July 2016, the US has lifted its ban on transgender people serving openly in the military. The BBC carries the story here.

Friday 2 May 2014

Victoria and Treva Askey

Trevor Askey met Victoria in high school and they were sweethearts for a short time. Then they left school. Trevor joined the British Army, and served for 23 years. They each had other relationships. Nonetheless, they kept in touch throughout.

In 2006, Trevor told Victoria his lifelong secret: that he should have been a woman. Victoria was not only supportive, she performed his first makeover, and even proposed marriage. They married as Victoria and Trevor, but Trevor is now Treva (say it Tree-Vah), and is undergoing full transition with Victoria's full support.

Victoria and Treva
They were kind enough to take the time to answer my interview questions. Victoria sent their replies in colour, which is an elegant way to keep their answers distinct. I have adopted Victoria's colours in their replies which follow.

Tell me a bit about what you remember about each other from meeting in school. Did you have a relationship then? How old were you when you first met each other?
Victoria: I remember seeing Trevor ride past me on his push bike and I couldn't keep my eye off him. It was like I knew him and wanted to seriously get to know this person. He was seen as a school bully because he wouldn't allow anyone to get close, including friends, but that wasn't going to put me off. I was nicknamed "Trevor's little stalker". It was in 1986 and I was 13. He was my first serious crush; I even remember being in my maths class and staring at him running in PE. He was a runner for the school and he was so gorgeous, I was totally smitten. We dated for about 4 weeks and I think I got too close so he finished it. I was devastated.
Treva: I was 15 and two years above Victoria. I remember her watching me all the time and various school mates telling me she liked me. I remember my first line to her was "your parka is not as good as mine", as I had an old M65 US-Army fishtail parka and she had one of those blue parkas with the orange inside.

I remember those parkas! I had a green one with the orange inside. Is it true you wouldn't let anyone get close to you in school? Can you explain why?
Treva: Yes it is true, I was unsure of what I was going through or what I was feeling and I didn't want anyone else to see who I really was, because they may have seen something I didn't want them to see.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier: Trevor

What made you choose a career in the Army? Were you thinking of any other career?
Treva: I chose a career in the Army because being confused I didn't know what to do, so as I lived in a rural area I had little else to choose but the Army. On top of this I thought that going into the Army and choosing a masculine career (Engineer) would make me into a man. As for another career, there really wasn't anything else I could choose due to my location and the lack of opportunities available.

Did you join the Army knowing you had a feminine side, and expecting (or hoping) the Army to knock it out of you?
Treva: No. I joined the Army unsure of what I was going through. I just joined the Army to do the man thing, and with living in a rural area there was no other option in the job front. And on top of that I wanted to prove people wrong: various teachers had told me that I wouldn't be able to do it because of my disruptive nature.
What was it like serving as a soldier knowing there was a woman trapped inside you?
Treva: It was frustrating, difficult. I used my chosen career to keep my mind off things, keeping myself occupied to keep my mind off everything else.

You left the Army before announcing your transition. Did it ever cross your mind to consider remaining? Lieutenant Colonel Cate McGregor has remained in the Australian army and transitioned, with the support of her commanding officer.
Treva: No. I am a stubborn old fool, I signed on the dotted line as Trevor so I was going to complete my time as Trevor.
In civvies

How many other members of the armed forces do you think are affected by gender dysphoria?
Treva: I know of a few others that have gone through transition whilst still being in the forces.

You say your Army mates have been supportive. Does this differ from what seems to be a very homophobic and transphobic environment in the military?

Treva: As for the homophobic or transphobic, I personally believe that's more of a sheep following: one person says something negative, then the others follow. But some do stand up and won't follow and are accepting.

I have written about Jan Hamilton. To what extent do you think your story parallels hers? Is there anything you would say that is different between you?
Treva: We are two totally different people. Every trans story has some similarities, but are any two the same? And I was a Royal Engineer, not a Para.

What advice would you give to someone in the armed forces struggling with their gender identity?
Treva: There is a lot more in place within the forces now to assist you through your transition. Yeah, you may get a bit of hassle, but you have to be strong no matter what, to get through Transition. Don't wait and try later in life, say something and go for it.

I understand the British Army now allows serving soldiers to transition and remain in the Army. Is this right? Or am I misunderstanding?
Treva: No, that is correct. There was a lass at my last unit that was going through transition. They now help in any way that they can.

What are you doing for a living now?
Treva: I am retarded-- I mean retired! (laughs) But if you wanted to put a job title to my name, I would be the house wife. I look after my step kids, with packed lunches, take them to school, push them with homework, do all the cooking as my wife hates cooking, make sure my youngest step son has all his medication as he has health problems. Vicky spends most of her time typing for various book projects.

The press reports that you are taking hormones you have bought off the Internet. Please tell me this isn't true!
Treva: This is no longer true. I was getting my meds off the internet after months of research and seeing reports from a private GID [Gender Identity Disorder] doctor. I started self medicating on a very low dose and gradually worked my way up to a higher dose. But I wouldn't recommend this. After deciding to tell my GP and getting referred to a GIC [Gender Identity Clinic] I was then asked to stop my blockers, this was to get my hormone levels as close to my before-medication levels. This then shocked my system, making me lose weight, lose hair and lose all the other bits you get on hormones. After a few months on the NHS [National Health Service] I am finally getting the hormones on an even keel, I think!
Accepting: Victoria

Victoria, there was clearly a lifelong friendship (chemistry?) between you and Trevor. Looking back, did you see any hints of Trevor's gender dysphoria?
Victoria: I didn't see any hints as such, but when I looked into his eyes I thought there was a sadness I couldn't put my finger on. Every time I met up, I would ask what it was that he was keeping from me. At one point I was sent a random email from Trevor that had details of a Trans website. I was going to ask him outright but chickened out-- I mean how on earth do I ask someone that's a manly soldier if he is trans? We then lost contact for a little time.

How did Trevor first tell you about wanting to transition? What were your feelings at that time?
Victoria: We were emailing each other, something we did every now and then, touching base and seeing how each of us was doing. He said that he wanted to tell me something, so whilst on MSN instant messaging each other, about 2006-7 he just told me straight out. I can't remember exactly what was said and I didn't save the messages but it was along the lines of "I should have been a woman".

I cried like a baby, not because I was gutted that he was going to at some point be a she, but he could have told me years ago. I was at the time training to be a psychologist and wanted to help those who felt this way, I also worked for a photographic company that made people over to bring out their feminine side, and Trevor knew this but still didn't say anything.

Then it hit me that my sweetheart was suffering, and I desperately wanted to hold Trevor and tell him I will be there for him through this. I realised that this explained so much about how he was during his teenage years, why he always looked sad. I felt like I needed to be with Trevor even more from that point on.

You say you worked for a company doing trans makeovers. Can you tell me a bit more about that?
Victoria: It wasn't a company that just did trans makeovers, it was a photographic studio that was willing to do trans makeovers, so we had a few customers but not many as we didn't advertise this. The first makeover I did, it took the customer two attempts to go through with the full makeover and then they became very emotional when shown the end result. I think, along with my psychotherapy, that this has given me the opportunity to not fear what Treva is going through, but to empathise and want to understand more.

How did you first get introduced to Treva? How did you feel?
Victoria: Well Treva wasn't Treva to begin with: she was Clare, and I made her over. I really wanted to do this and it was an amazing moment. I was so nervous and so was Treva, mainly because I wanted her to feel special and she was showing me this side to her that she had never shown to another soul. She had never told anyone. I felt privileged. That same night I asked her to marry me with a big blue diamond ring. She said yes (smiles).  

Treva, being made up by the woman you love and then being proposed to must be close to heaven for some of us. Can you tell us a bit about your feelings at that point?
Treva: I was just full of nerves. Nobody had seen me dressed, never mind making me over. And when Victoria proposed I was overcome with joy and happiness and every other happy emotion that you could think of.

Victoria, you say you proposed to Treva. What made you take this decision? Didn't you think that marrying a trans person might create a heap of problems?
Victoria: Treva asked me to marry her in 1993, but due to other fears I said no. She told me that she would not ask me again and it was my turn to ask her. Many years later, she tells me about who she truly is and I didn't want to run a mile, I just wanted to be close to her so she wasn't alone. I had to wait years again to get any chance of asking her to marry me. As far as I am concerned, I love the person, and if Treva was born trans then so be it. I often wonder why a person wouldn't still love someone just because they are born this way. I don't totally understand why anyone would run a mile. I am not saying it isn't full of difficult situations but it has made us both very open and close to each other, a lot more so than most marriages.
Was getting used to the idea of Treva a quick thing, or did it take you a while to come around?
Victoria: Her transition has been so gradual that I don't feel like I had to get used to anything. We spoke about what she wanted at length before we moved in together, so there was no real "getting used to". For me it was more like getting used to living with a woman, having never had to live with a woman before and being a bit of a tomboy myself, I do get a little annoyed with her beautifying herself. But then I look at her and want to thank her for allowing me to be part of her life, she is so beautiful.

Is Treva a different person from Trevor?

Victoria: Hell yes! She is totally different, because Trevor acted the big man and yet she is shy and reserved and sweet. Trevor is more football and scooters (1960's Lambretta scooters) and Treva still likes her football and scooters but just a milder version. It's difficult to explain really.

Question to both of you. You got married as a man and a woman. Did you contemplate getting married while both wearing dresses?
Victoria: I wanted her to but no one knew about her.
Treva: We even thought about doing it as a joke (according to others) but we decided not to in the end. Victoria is currently pestering me to marry her again and I have to wear a "heavy, can't breathe, need at least two people to take me to the loo", full-on dress. I am trying to convince her otherwise.
Victoria: She will wear a wedding dress. I am a very determined person.

Victoria, tell me about your book.
Victoria: I wrote a book about what it has been like so far living with Treva as she transitions. It's my diary. You can find it on Amazon, in either paperback or for the Kindle. It's called Too Deep.

I also have a website. You can find a link to my book via my website. I currently have a survey on my website that I am looking for people who are going through and have been through Transition to fill in for me. It's about 18 questions long and I need as many different accounts as possible.

I am currently writing my next two books. One is Too Deep Two; this is the next part as we enter the NHS, and the other is a book about other people's experiences. I have found that trawling through the internet when Treva was first starting her transition, there was no single place for honest accounts of other experiences, and we had read so much negative stuff it was depressing. I would like to show people that it's not all bad; doom and gloom.

I also have two children's books: My Special Step-mum Angelina, about a step-daddy who becomes step-mummy, and My Two Daddies, about a young boy adopted by a same-sex couple. I will be writing more children's books in the future.

What's the most difficult thing about having a transgender husband?
Victoria: The lack of testosterone causes a lack of libido. I find her so attractive and that's difficult. Having to think about what we are doing, who we will see and were we are going, and having to look for suitable toilets. And not being able to be spontaneous, due to the fact she still has to shave (we can't afford electrolysis and laser doesn't work on blond hair), we have to make sure her hair is good, etc. etc. Some days I do wish it was all done and we didn't have to think this way.

What's the best thing about having a transgender husband?
Victoria: Although it's bad for our purse, I do enjoy clothes shopping. At the moment it's getting a little difficult seeing the good things but hopefully it will get easier-- then perhaps I could answer this question a little better.

"It's getting a little difficult seeing the good things". What do you mean by that?

Victoria: It's not that Treva and I are unhappy together. It's more the fact that we have to go through so much. I hate the fact that she has to go through years of "real life experience" just to get to the point of surgery referral; getting hormones wrong and things going pear shaped because of this; the fear of going to new places; the wondering which toilets she can use without causing problems.

I mean, use the men's and get beaten up, use the women's and get some female complaining, use the disabled and get someone complaining, and this can all be in front of my children. Some people don't seem to think before reacting. I hate the fact we are stared at. What happens if we go some place and she needs to use the toilet but there is no option to her? Then we have to come home just so she can pee.

We have to think about whether we can stay out before facial hair starts showing through. We have to think about how the children are at school: are they being picked on? Does anyone make comments to them at school? Are they happy? We have few friends and worry about what other parents say to their children if asked about Treva.

Then Treva is so down about how she looks and that is difficult to watch. It does take some strength to stay positive. It is by no means easy and you have to have a very strong and open relationship. You have to be able to talk to each other. I must admit I find it difficult to talk to Treva about how I am feeling because I keep thinking that it's nothing in comparison to how she must be feeling. Treva tells me off for this. But, after all that we are both close, we hold on to each other through each step and hoop-jump Treva has to do, and we always tell each other how much we love each other every single day. So, given time, it will get better-- I hope.

We both have our fears of the future but we try not to dwell on that as we don't know what's around the corner. At the moment we are struggling a little due to hormones not being right, but we take each day as it comes. And yes: everything Treva goes through is referred to as a "we" thing.    
What advice would you give to another woman who finds out her husband has a feminine side?
Victoria: To take into account that it's taken a lot for your husband to have told you this. There could be various reasons he didn't tell you, from not wanting to admit it himself to the fear of losing everything.

Telling someone you love is difficult. Take a deep breath and listen to your husband; and talk: don't blame and don't shout. Don't reply with anger. I get that it can be difficult to understand why your husband hasn't told you before, but please listen first before making any decisions, and don't be swayed by any negativity, You may find that you will become far closer than you could have ever imagined if you talk. And if you decide that you love your husband enough to stay, then hold on: it's gonna be one hell of a rollercoaster ride. You will cry, you will grieve, but to see the happiness can be equally overwhelming.

Question to both of you. What famous person would you most like to meet, and why?
Victoria: Angelina Jolie, because she has done exactly what I would do if I had her money: I would adopt. I find her fascinating and she comes across like a person you could really sit down and have a chat to. Either that or Tom Hanks, so I can tell him that he is the single best actor ever to grace this planet.
Dishy: Gino D'Acampo
Treva: Gino D'Acampo. Not sure you know who he is! He is an Italian chef and I would love to have cooking lessons with him.


This has been one of my longer interviews, but I thought it was worth including all of Victoria's and Treva's replies because I thought they were interesting and revealing.

There are two things about this couple which are especially worthy of interest. First, Victoria is a woman who not only accepted Treva's transition, she completely embraced it. This is no everyday occurrence. It seems to me that Victoria's acceptance of Treva was immediate and complete: no period of hesitation, of negotiating boundaries, of coming to terms with it. Nonetheless, by her own admission, it hasn't been easy by any means, and Victoria has faced (indeed, they both continue to face) some very difficult situations in their daily lives.

But Treva is fortunate indeed: few relationships seem to survive transition unscathed, and finding someone special post-transition seems to be a difficult road for many. This, at least, is one obstacle Treva doesn't have to face.

Second, Treva survived two decades in the Army, an environment which has a reputation for being profoundly transphobic and homophobic. Jan Hamilton spoke of joining the Army as a means to "prove" her masculinity. I think there are quite a lot of transgender people in careers such as the military, the police, and other "masculine" professions, and I think the reason for this is that some, at least, deliberately sign up for those careers in the hope that it will "make a man out of them".

For Treva, this seems not to be the case. From this interview, it seems Trevor was a troubled youth, and was seen to be such by his peers and teachers. I wonder if this was because Trevor knew at that age he felt he carried a secret he could not bear to share with others. In any case, it seems that Trevor joined the Army because he felt he had few other options open.

I do wonder about the armed forces. There has been a spate of transgender soldiers telling their stories lately: Jan Hamilton, Cate McGregor, Kristin Beck (and I am aware of some transgender stories from much older people who served in conflicts long finished). I suspect that this is the small tip of a very large iceberg, and I wonder both about how many military people are already transgender, and what the armed forces (of any country) would do if they all came out at once! I have collected material for another blog post about this topic.

Meanwhile, my thanks to Victoria and Treva for their patience with my questions, and for providing photographs from their personal collection to illustrate this blog post. Victoria promises to let me know if they renew their vows in wedding dresses. I close with a reminder to check out Victoria's book or to read her blog.

For my exclusive interview with Jan Hamilton, now Abigail Austen, click here.