Many trans women seek to feminise their appearance, but you’ve chosen a beard – why?
Alex Drummond: I was aware that I was unlikely ever to pass as natal female, so what I wanted to do is to see if it was possible to create another space. I did it in a very radical way; I was testing new ground. I knew that simply shaving my beard and putting breasts on wasn’t going to make me pass, and I used to work for an architect and he used to say, “When you’re designing something you either make it very deliberately level or very deliberately off.” So that was the philosophy.
What I want to do is to widen the bandwidth of gender, to make it more possible for more people to come out as a transgender, to live authentic lives. If all you ever see is trans women who completely pass and are completely convincing as natal females, then those of us who just don’t have that kind of luck won’t have the confidence to come out.
For the people who don’t pass I can say “don’t be afraid” because what I’ve discovered is you don’t need to pass, what you need is to act authentically. And if a child sees me and thinks, “Bloody hell, so it’s not as simple as pink or blue or football or ballet – there must be 101 possibilities in between,” then maybe I can serve the greater good.
What sort of reactions do you get?
AD: It’s actually very positive. For all the stories of trans women having a miserable time and being picked on, there are plenty of us having perfectly good lives. I get very little hassle, if any, and I get a lot of positive reactions. I think that’s to do with inner confidence and positivity – if you feel anxious about your appearance in the sense of “someone might spot I’m a natal male” then that anxiety comes out. If you feel grounded and comfortable in your own skin you don’t bring that anxiety across. I walk with confidence because I’ve accepted myself and I can radiate that out.
What do people say to you on the street?
AD: Most people treat me entirely normally: It just works. I’ve had women come up to me and say, “I love your look.” The thing of walking down the street and somebody looking twice and going, “Is that a man or a woman?”, is people can see I’m presenting as female and can see the beard, so seemingly I’m doing something with gender. It’s made people stop and think. An American couple stopped me the other day, and said, “What’s the outfit?” And I explained it to them and they were really cool with it. But they could see there’s something to question.
Do you have a dual relationship with gender or is it more complex?
AD: It’s more complex because if I was 19 today growing up in a family with supportive parents I would probably transition more conventionally, because at that age I could have passed more easily and it might have been safer for my body to take the impact of surgery and hormones.
Why did you decide against taking hormones or having surgery?
AD: It would be an unhelpful risk for me. For some people it’s riskier than others. What I wanted to see is if it’s possible to transition without having to do that. That’s an important thing that came from the 2010 Equality Act – prior to that you needed this medicalised route to gain a transgender identity, but since 2010 you don’t need to subject your body to medical science to have [one’s gender] converted.
When Conchita Wurst won Eurovision, she really jolted people with her appearance. She’s not trans, but how did you feel when that was happening?
AD: The bitch stole my look! [laughs] That day when she appeared on the Eurovision Song Contest my Facebook feed went mental! It was so funny. I would love to meet Conchita because she’s questioning gender. And even the name Wurst: Everyone at first thought it was a dick joke about sausage. But the truth of it was that “wurst” was a reference to the Austrian expression “I don’t give a sausage” – “I don’t give a damn.” It is a much more intelligent thing than a drag queen going, “I’m a girl with a dick.” But it really did question the idea of what male or female might be and because a lot of people related very well to Conchita after that I did get a few people asking me if I was her.
But the very notion that beards are a male thing is bullshit, because lots of women have facial hair to varying degrees…
AD: Indeed. That American couple, when I said I identify as a trans woman, they said, “Well, why have you got a beard?” I said, “Well there ain’t no law against a woman having a beard.”
And a lot of women go to great lengths to remove their facial hair. But you’re not conforming to that…
AD: No, and yet paradoxically, I have had the hair on my arms removed because I don’t like having hairy arms because that doesn’t feel feminine, so go figure [laughs]!
You mention in the video that you grew your beard in your thirties to butch up – what was happening for you at that time?
AD: I’d been wrestling with mixed feelings about identifying as female but that not being an option and so was trying to fit in and be masculine. I’d worked as a builder and had an uber masculine identity. Ever since my twenties I’d had long hair and it was a really important part of my identity and then it started thinning so I cut my hair off and it was just the most awful thing. So I thought, “Right, well, I’ll be uber masculine and have this beard and shaved head and I’ll butch up.”
Where did that desire to seek out a hyper masculine identity come from?
AD: Growing up in the seventies I got bullied a lot for being perceived as gay. I identify as lesbian as I’m female and attracted to women so it was my gender non-conformity that was being read as gay. So I thought if I don’t look feminine I won’t be read as gay therefore people won’t pick on me.
How bad was the bullying?
AD: I was bullied and attacked every day and it was just awful. I say school is one of the most dangerous places you can send a child because there’s absolutely no protection. The chronic fear I think is the most traumatising bit. When I got beaten up it was over and done with, but when you go in day after day after day and the same gang are taunting you and threatening you, that’s harder to deal with because that doesn’t go away. In secondary school this one boy picked on me at the wrong moment and I threw him over my shoulder and he was flat out, and that brought me some peace. But it soon resumed.
What’s the connection between saying “enough is enough” in that moment and who you are today?
AD: People say to trans people, “Aren’t you brave for coming out!” And I say, “No, I’ll tell you what’s brave, it’s the kid who went to school and had to face that fear and terror, day in, day out.” I was a very disempowered kid who was trying to not get spotted or visibly outed and became a young adult who also tried to not be visibly outed, but I reached a point where I thought, “Actually, I don’t need to be vulnerable to you people, because I’m going to fight back.”
What was the turning point where you went from being this hyper-masculine person to being yourself?
AD: Well, it was my master’s degree. I had been dressing up in secret because of all the shame I had, I believed it was some kind of perversion. I identified as female but didn’t have a framework, a language or an understanding of it. I was really struggling with internalised shame. But the more I read, the more I realised it wasn’t a pathology, it was a natural phenomenon, and I suddenly got introduced to this term “transgender” and had a healthy way of understanding how I felt.
You identify as lesbian – how do other women react to you?
AD: I’ve been in a long-term committed relationship for a long time now so I’m spoken for, but certainly I draw out the inner lesbian in women! I get a lot of positive reactions and I’m not to everyone’s taste but I get some really nice affirmations. I never got complimented when I was living as male and trying to pass as male and yet as a woman I regularly get complimented on how I look. Actually, that’s really sweet.
You can watch more interviews with trans people in the “My Genderation” series here.
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