[Gratuitous pic for no reason other than ‘Oh Eddie, when did you get so pretty?’]
Me, btw. I’m half Danish. Anyway… I watched The Danish Girl last night. I have to say I really enjoyed it (the copious and gratuitous screen-time given to Nyhavn
and Art Nouveau style certainly helped), but for some reason I couldn’t quite put my finger on, it jarred. I thought at first it was just that my own expectations of what kind of a story it might tell were snagging up against the actual story being told, that the disconnect between being LGBT in 2016 and being trans in the 1920s (when there wasn’t even a word for it, let alone any meaningful examples of ‘how’ or ‘what’) was unexpectedly wide. But the more I turn it over in my mind, the more I feel angry that the narrative I saw unfold on the big screen was poorly, wrongly and inconsistently told.
Let’s get this clear, I am a cis woman. I do not know, deep down, what it is like to be trans. But I do know that ‘the trans experience’ is not a simply labelled box, and will vary as much from person to person as any human experience. So I will say that while I found Lili’s (Eddie Redmayne’s Lili, not the historical, real person of Lili) story a bit weird, I am also happy to accept that some trans people have exactly that experience. Is the split-personality, talking about yourself in the third person thing common? I mean I suspect not, but really I don’t know. I am also happy to accept that The Danish Girl is an excellent starting point for the majority of people who have no experience of trans stories; I’m glad that it was made, and that it has been so successful. Yay. To all you such people – don’t stop here, find out more!
Because while starting points are good, here we have cis straight white men rewriting and performing a history that isn’t theirs, thus silencing important voices that the world needs to hear. Lili Elbe’s diaries were made into a book, so it’s not like her voice has been lost – just ignored. When Hollywood does this to a slice of society that is *routinely* silenced, and abused, and misunderstood, they are actively reinforcing an existing, faulty narrative, in a way that harms people. A narrative that in this case showed the world that a trans woman is a man who dresses, and play-acts, as a woman (and still behaves like an entitled male prick when it comes to expressing this play act to his wife. Sigh). Underlined by the choosing of a man, to play a transwoman. By the way, if they can make James McAvoy look like a fucking faun, they can make a trans actress look like a man, so there are no good excuses here. Eddie Redmayne = box office dollars and no male hierarchy boats rocked, stop pretending otherwise.
Holly wood magic. It can be done.
No, I am not trans. But my wife is. So I cannot add much to Hollywood-Lili’s story, but I absolutely can connect with Hollywood-Gerda. Kind of. But Real Gerda is so much more complicated than dutiful-confused-wife Hollywood-Gerda. So actually… I couldn’t connect. See, this is what *really* bothered me: the reinforcing of the narrative that when a spouse comes out as a trans woman, the wife (who is always straight, btw) is left sacrificing all she holds dear and ends up hurt, frustrated, and in need of a man who doesn’t exist any more. Cries of ‘But I miss my husband’ and ‘Your husband is dead now’ and all that tragedy. It left me wondering – is that how people think it happens? That’s not what happened to me, and that’s a horrible story, why would you show people that? Where is my story?
But, nobody else is going to tell my story, and I realised last night that I’ve never even told it myself. I thought people would just know. But maybe people don’t, maybe they assume that Hollywood-Gerda’s experience is my experience, and I’m just being brave about it. So, for anyone who wants or needs to hear it, this is my story. Because I’m through with everyone equating trans to tragedy.
I met my partner when I was 17, we married when I was 22. We have grown up together, and always been the best of friends. We have two children, who are amazing. We talk, a lot, and so her coming out as a woman was a gradual blossoming that took many months. Whenever I see onscreen couples that don’t communicate properly I just want to knock their heads together – and Gerda and Einar were an amazing couple, so the non-communication and subsequent on/off breakdown just didn’t ring true. My partner has now changed her name, and is in the process of accessing support from a gender identity clinic. I don’t want to say ‘transitioning’, because that implies a start and an end point, and a changing of who she is, and the point I really REALLY want to ram down Hollywood’s throat is that *she is the same person she always was*. She has grown, in ways I hope we all continue to grow as human beings throughout our lives. But I have not lost my husband, my husband is not a person who has died and been replaced with another, my husband is *exactly the same person*, except now I say “wife” when I talk about her. She still likes mushrooms, and fruitcake, and cycling, she is still an amazing musician, and a terrible Star Wars geek (I mean good, she is a good Star Wars geek – oops). She steals my cool tights now, is growing her hair long, and wears skirts more than I do, but as a person she Has. Not. Changed.
I have been privileged to see the person I thought I knew blossom into someone neither I – nor she – ever realised was there. She has always been a woman, it is society that told her that because her body looked like a stereotypical male body, thus she must be male. She must dress in man clothes, and do man things, and *pretend to be a man so deeply that she comes to believe it herself*. I love her with all my heart, and maybe my feelings for her have become a bit more protective (thanks, established narrative, for continuing to endanger trans women), but really? To be witness to the person I love stepping into their truth, and letting me step with them through the fears, the doubts, the hurts – and the joy; who could not want that?
Lili Elbe and Gerda Gottlieb by Gerda Gottlieb
I accept that my bisexual identity does mean that male/female holds no issue for me, whereas it may do for others, but this is my story. I’ve heard enough sad stories and I wanted a counterpoint to them. So, none of the grieving for someone I’ve lost, no discomfort in the label of ‘husband’ becoming ‘wife’ (because they’re just different words applied the Same Person – have I said that yet?), no shame, no hiding, no frustration. I’m not going to tell you about the sex, because I need to keep *some* boundaries. But, please don’t worry on my behalf 😉 Oh, and you know what? The kids are completely unfazed by it too. They don’t care what gender or sexuality their parents identify as, because we’re (say it with me) still the same people.
So, history and “complicated” ideas mangled in the name of ticket sales. Just like ‘women just want to find their man’, ‘men have to be muscled heroes’, add it to the list of stories we absorb. Yeah, I know, HOLLYWOOD, but it still grates, no matter how often it happens.
Please, share my story. Not because it’s mine, but because it could be yours, or your friend’s, or your co-worker’s. Yes, I am white and privileged, so my experience will not be everyone’s, but it is one more to add to your library. Don’t assume that when someone comes out as trans – male or female or neither or anything in between – that the person they are will be lost forever, or changed beyond recognition. Instead dare to assume that everything will be as it always was, only more honest, and more joyous because of that. Let’s make the standard narrative not “person is trans, everything falls apart”, but “person is trans, WOOO YAY BALLOONS!” Because surely nothing is more worthy of celebration than finding your true self, finding the courage to live it, and loving supportive people to live it with. Those are the stories I want to hear.