Orientation: Portrait

  • Posted on June 7, 2019 at 8:42 pm

I’m sitting in front of the big portrait mirror, watching the incremental improvement in my hair under the expert scissors of my lesbian hairdresser. I can talk comfortably about my partner – and hers – and indeed about being trans. I told her early on, half presuming it was already obvious from my thin hair on top, my characteristic hairline, and to signal that I was OK to be identified.

I started coming here on recommendation of my partner, so ‘coming out’ as gay had already been done by proxy, though it was into my first cut that I realised she was too. Since then we had many conversations around my head about growing up gay, coming out for the first time, family responses, the experience of Brighton Pride. And of places where being gay was still an issue. Maybe not a problem so much, but where you need to be careful.
I’m not being careful here today. But should I speak up to be heard over the hairdryer when I start to explain intersex? We got here because her partner had been well and truly slated on Facebook for calling out gender reveal parties for stereotyping expectations about people too small to come out yet. And when they do come out, all they can do is cry, suck and poo. Oh, and puke all over their mum. We all came out for the first time long before we knew we might have to do it all again later.

I explain intersex, marvelling still at the invisibility of so many people, with whom we unknowingly rub shoulders. You see, it’s a real problem for parents of an intersex baby because friends and relatives are scared and don’t know what to say or do, about the baby (the person) or about how the parents are coping – and really all because it’s not a problem with the new person so much as a problem with the rest of us. I start to explain that it isn’t just the stereotyping but the damage, that cutting a baby to make it suit our normality, to make us feel safe, that we must be doing the right thing – is no different from FGM. We all have much to learn, if we take notice.

We drift onto a dating show that I don’t watch, but the issue of a trans person disclosing at the first meeting in order to avoid conflict, or even a violent response later. In this episode the cis male date doesn’t appear troubled and says ‘Are you? I’d never have known.’ Someone had commented on this being itself problematic: why should you know? Is saying you couldn’t have guessed an implication that trans women must be just so bleeding obvious they disgust you? You can’t win as a trans woman. If you don’t say, what happens when someone finds out? If you do say, you’re accused of being ‘in your face’. They want us to both go away but also self-declare.


At home, we’ve been watching Gentleman Jack, the series based on the life of Anne Lister, born in the 18th century, an amazing, intelligent, ambitious landowner and traveller who had no truck with patriarchal society, where she could not vote, but her uneducated tenant farmers could. She ‘married’ Ann Walker, her partner and long-time ‘companion’, with whom she lived openly in Halifax, Yorkshire. Open? She wrote her erotic diaries in code and hid them. They recorded her love life, her sex life, in detail. They are rich. So rich they sickened the men who found and decoded them. They were hidden again. Poor Anne couldn’t come out and stay out for centuries. And now we watch her on a movie series in full colour. Would you know from looking at her, back then? She preferred masculine clothing and was sometimes mistaken for a man, but no, from her voice, features and hair she is unmistakeably a woman, and that is why she was an obvious lesbian, for all the secrets between the sheets – of her diary.

My hairdresser doesn’t look like a lesbian. But that’s because, like trans women, we are far from all alike. There are androgynous and non-binary people who don’t call themselves gay. There are butch lesbians who look down their noses at femme lesbians and trans women who look down on drag artistes, and transwomen who will never be described as ‘passing’ who are proud of it and never feel the need to look particularly feminine. The spectrum of personality is no narrower in us minorities than anywhere else in humanity. Intersex people don’t (quotes) ‘look’ intersex, and many don’t know they are until puberty.

Anyway, I’m having my hair nicely styled and like my hairdresser, I’m femme.


I offer her the thought that where I work, instead of assuming everyone must know (as I used to), I think that most of my colleagues don’t know. In fact, for some, I am quite convinced. I get on very well with a female colleague and we discuss anything from HRT patches to women’s things, you know, the medical bits. We’ve both been in hospital for gynae things, it’s like a shared experience. And she knows I am lesbian because I talk about my partner and bring her along to company dos. And I add that if any colleague were to try to friend me on Facebook, I’d have to think twice. Actually, in order to be more visible as a climate and political commenter I’m a bit public already, so maybe if it’s a secret it’s already out. But why?

What would a colleague who stalked my Facebook page do? Share the secret: ‘do you know that Andie …?’ What consequence would that have? Maybe not everyone in the international company would ‘approve’ or maybe stop thinking so kindly about me? I found out only today that in one office they are avid Trump supporters … So, we are not all beautifully empathic and truth-loving people around here. And my colleagues get sent to countries where a trans lesbian woman would not be safe.

Am I being dishonest? Or self-protective? What is the real difference between my not disclosing this aspect of my person at work, a trans woman not disclosing on her first date, and my partner dropping hands in Berlin? You can’t win. Today, two gay women were attacked on a bus in Camden, London, by a group of men, robbed and beaten for not performing kissing for their titillation.

Talking to my hairdresser is good and is easy. When I was first growing my hair out, I felt embarrassed. Grey hair started to emerge below my wig. I had to have it cut but walking into a salon and taking the wig off was awkward. The first time I did it, the hairdresser was surprised: ‘I wouldn’t have known!’, she said. As one does, apparently. And yet I felt obvious, so even in Brighton, sitting in a salon in a row was very intimidating back then. Even with grown-out hair, my voice is a giveaway. You see, men who aren’t interested in the footy don’t talk at all when they have their hair cut. I know. Women tend to chat. But getting rid of the wigs was liberating, it was like being let out again. Being trans felt a bit subterfuge with prosthetics, and now I could relax. Or could I?

In my last job, I was ‘in transition’ and HR told everyone in the company (yes everyone) before my arrival, in order to protect me. Yes. I just made sure that I became so ordinary it couldn’t be an issue. Maybe I looked OK after all.


I step into late sunshine, my hair feeling lighter and walk from the salon. Street tables everywhere are full and loud. I remember the fear in walking past these landscapes in early days, sure that I was obvious and a figure of attention. Afraid of the calling out, the pointing, the loud comments. Determined to ignore it and walk on, wishing I could sit down with them and ask why. Or explain.

In a quieter street, a familiar pavement, the shops are shut. I browse a bit. ‘Excuse me.’ No question, no exclamation, just a please and I turn and recognise the knees-up, folded-up bundle of a girl in black with a crushed polystyrene cup populated with pennies, and an empty can.
She says she needs money and I give her a note but what she really wants is to be someone. I stop and talk because I’ve spoken to her before when she said it was her birthday and her world had collapsed and she had cried. She says she’s been on the streets for two years and has no ID. She’ll be housed next week. Maybe. Maybe. It will rain tomorrow. What does she do when she’s on her period? She needs thirty quid a night for a hostel bed. No ID, no benefits. Where is her portrait in this disoriented landscape?

She thanks me and asks my name.
Andy? That’s a man’s name.
A. N. D. I. E.
Are you a man?
I’m a woman.
Are you transgender?
I shrug. Yes. Just ordinary transgender, I say.
You’re very pretty …

I ask her name too. I wish her well, hope the housing works out, that she gets her birth certificate copy. That life takes a turn for the better. We smile. ‘Excuse me.’ Others are walking by as I walk away.

All of us are where we are by chance. Intersex, homeless, gay, non-binary, transgender. Whatever our orientation we have a public portrait but no-one can write our biography before we’ve lived it, and only we can write it after.

The baby. The Anne Lister portrait. The male years. The wig and transition years. This ordinary life. All in pictures, in portrait, whatever the orientation, no landscapes, just faces. What does my portrait tell you?


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