Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Transition: from Grime to Sparkle

Long before other steady relationships there was Manchester. I have had this strange affair with that city since a child. Okay, let's disambiguate here. 'Queen City' out there in New Hampshire may be one of the greatest little cities in the East but I'm talking Manchester UK, population these days round half a million.

As a child growing amongst the grimy rust belt and worked out coalfields of the UK's West Riding, Manchester was 40 miles away, also scarily grimy with a grim and dour northern neo-gothic aspect. Even so, it still seemed to me as a child like somewhere where everything happened. If my parents wanted to shop for anything out of the ordinary, Manchester was the place. It seemed a bit like where I lived, only far, far bigger and a great deal noisier.

I had a rough time as a teen back in the 70's, what transgendered teen didn't back then? I knew that I had to escape home for more than the usual reasons. As a teen you long for that opportunity to finally be yourself. I guess I wasn't really sure who that person was but I did know for sure that she wasn't the young guy I appeared to be. At the same time I was way too scared to move too far away from home. I would have loved to go to London but I settled for this grimy city separated from my own little town by about 40 miles of wild moorland, strange choice. I spoke good fluent French, why didn't go to France? Instead I enrolled at what is now The Victoria University of Manchester to study the language.

I lived in Fallowfield in one of the college halls. It was a short bus ride up to the main campus. Being finally free of my family was very liberating. I realized that I was less 'weird' in a place like this but sadly I still didn't feel I could be myself. There I was in a big city, first time away from home, suitcase and a guitar, a university place and a whole load of emotional baggage too. It was a great buzz to be there but I still couldn't break free.

Throughout my teen years I had coped with being transgendered by being inwardly shy but with an outward 'stage' persona that allowed me to experience success and praise without anybody getting to know who I really was. Playing in folk clubs, social clubs and small coffee house venues had given me some outward confidence. I sang mainly covers; material by guys like Gordon Lightfoot, James Taylor, Tom Paxton, Ralph McTell. I hardly ever sang any of my own songs, they were the usual teen stuff only even more depressing.

In Manchester, I knew nobody, had no contacts and had to start over. The only music I played was for other student friends or for myself alone in my room. Practising over and over did wonders for my playing but little for my self confidence. In college, I met others who reminded me so much of who I was inside. It was the late 70's, before AIDS and some of the gay friends I knew seemed to have a great time being out, at least within their own circle. I never ventured onto Canal St at night but I knew those who did. Canal St had a reputation as a place for Gay guys to meet up. Sometimes I wondered if I too was Gay, after all, I did fancy guys. It never felt quite right though. In the end I became even more mixed up and then finally suicidal. Getting to an incredibly low point just before Christmas 1977, I decided that I couldn't carry on living a lie and a double life and wanted it end it all. I didn't have the courage to go through with that decision either. Reluctantly I dropped out of College and went back home.

It has taken half a lifetime for me to sort my life out and become the person I was inside but desperately needed to be in a complete sense. After seven years, that seems like ages now. It has been a butterfly experience and a long reluctant period in a cocoon. Manchester has not stood still either. Whilst I have been transitioning so has the City. The experience has been so similar.

It is only within the last 7 years or so that I have returned. I have seen Manchester too emerge from the cocoon. So much has changed. It is now a truly cosmopolitan and vibrant European City with great events and a fantastic atmosphere. It still has those neo-gothic buildings, but the context is so different. With a 21,000 seat concert arena and great theatres and clubs, I've found myself returning to the city again and again, this time to enjoy myself, as a woman. There is another reason too. The Village in Manchester, centered around a Canal St changed beyond recognition, is now the undisputable capital of UK Gay culture. It now has some of the best bars and clubs. Manchester Pride is one of the high spots of the year, a fantastic event for the whole Gay community. Around the time I came out, Sparkle too was born. For the last 7 years (this is its 8th) Sparkle has become probably the biggest event for the Trans community in the UK if not the world. It is with good reason. Sparkle is the most amazing celebration of the whole TG spectrum from those who occasionally crossdress to people living full time like myself. It is a such a welcoming and inclusive event. The atmosphere is truly amazing. Both myself and Manchester have come home. If you want to be there, Sparkle takes place this year from Friday 13th to Sunday 15th of July. Maybe I'll see you there.


Sunday, June 3, 2012

Trans Musician or what?

I guess that I have been a musician since the age of 9 when I picked up my first guitar and strummed a ‘G’ chord. Once I’d added a few more chord shapes there didn’t seem much point in just playing if I couldn’t sing as well. Round about that time I was 11 I started to dress less conventionally too. I was looking for clothes that didn’t scream ‘boy’ or ‘girl’. I wore mainly bell bottoms which I flared myself by stitching floral fabric into the outseams, jewellery and kaftans. Beginning to sew and make my own clothes helped me to cultivate my own individuality wearing off the peg clothes forced me to be someone I wasn’t comfortable with. I hated being identified as a boy but I was too scared to be open and be identified as a girl. It was the same with singing other people’s songs, they belonged to other people and they didn’t fit. I soon started to write my own lyrics and use my newly learned guitar skills to accompany myself singing them.

When I began my transition it was just such a relief. Now I could wear regular girl clothes. I wish I could say that the great thing was that I didn’t stand out any more. Sadly, as many of us find, it doesn’t quite work that way. You don’t spend the best part of 40 years being a guy, however reluctantly without learning how to survive and not be called names. It hurt like hell as teen when people laughed and said I walked and talked like a girl. I ought to have been glad but I took it as the insult it was intended to be. As I grew up I learned how to cover all that up and survive. The ironic thing is that I’ve had to spend the last 7 years unlearning it. Wearing regular girl clothes became a battle to melt into the background and to be seen as no different to anyone else. Of late I’ve come to realise that having achieved that, you can start to express yourself and wear fashion your way but you have to learn how to be like everyone else first. These days, onstage I realize that I can more or less do things my way, be as daring as I want....to a point.

I wrote all that some time ago but never published it. I play with a local Country Rock band from time to time, I was doing it back then. I don't generally sing. I'm a female rhythm guitarist/bassist or that's who I appear to be. I don't suppose anybody thinks of me as 'a one time guy' or 'trans'. The operative words here are 'local' & 'don't generally sing'. On the other hand, I've been writing my own brand of Cabaret Blues music now for some time and I'm fortunate to have had the help of other musicians and my band members to put those songs together as demo tracks. Airing my music out there on the www, I've had a phenomenal response which has quite taken this T-Girl's breath away, some lovely sincere comments and praise. I never imagined that rather jaundiced Blues numbers about the way men treat me or songs about my personal journey would ever really find much favor with anybody. Now I'm left with a problem and it's like coming out all over again. Do I take a deep breath and start performing locally as the Transgendered Blues Artist I guess I really am? Or do I play safe and be 'that girl who plays rhythm in a country rock band'. I don't mind performing away from my local turf, but in my own back yard? Hmm!

I'm not asking for advice, lol. I have to make my own mind up about this one. Some of the people referred to anonymously in my songs might be in my audience. I have to work alongside others. I don't even link my Facebook Band Page to my usual personal one but to a separate site. Only gay friends really know much about this side of me. If any of you out there have a similar dilemma, I'd so love to hear from you.


Robyn-Jane xx