Are you a man or a woman? Yes, thanks.

This time last week I was getting ready to go to the Attitude Awards, where I was asked to present the gong for media representation. (I write for Attitude magazine’s rival, GT, so I was particularly flattered to have been invited. Thanks for having me, editor Matthew Todd.)

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You might expect a transgender woman to have a lovely evening at an event that celebrates diversity. And I did. I had dinner sandwiched between the outrageous Paul O’Grady and super lovely Celia Imrie (giving me a koala hug, above). Cher breathed on me. Last year Kate Moss blew smoke in my face, so I just need Madonna to cough on me and I can die happy. Trans people were mentioned throughout the speeches, and I was close to tears as we heard about the plight of gay and trans people in Russia, when the Attitude Community Award was given to the Russian LGBT Network. Matthew Todd made several references to trans people and gave me a warm personal mention in his opening speech. He sat me at the top table, with Gareth Thomas, Ed Milliband and his parents. It was surreal. The overwhelming majority of guests were trans allies and I had a truly wonderful night.

There were one or two incidents that stuck out, though, precisely because of the lovely safe space in which they occurred. I saw an acquaintance with a female friend. This friend asked me what I was doing at the event, was I gay? Paris is trans, my pal told her. What does that mean, asked the friend. Are you a girl? That was my starter.

Later I headed out to the back with my new pal Matt Cain, where we joined a man and a woman having a cigarette. She asked me what I was doing at these awards, was I a lesbian? She loves lesbians, you see. I tell her I’m transgender – and so began the main course. Are you a woman? Are you a man? Are you a third sex? What are you? No, you don’t understand – have you had everything done? Why can’t I ask you these questions?

I tried to explain that mentioning I’m trans doesn’t mean you can ask me if I’m a man or a woman, or indeed anything about my genitals. I tried to be nice. They were drunk. We were drunk. Everyone was having a good time. Why bother explaining that her reaction was like meeting a gay man and asking if he ‘takes it up the arse’? I might have made this point, but then the guy started mouthing that I had ‘brought it up’ and what did I expect? They had done nothing wrong.

He was a smartly dressed man round about my mother’s age, who said he wrote for a quality paper. I don’t know if he was gay. Perhaps I should have asked. I’d at least expect him to be gay friendly if he’s turning up to the Attitude Awards though. So this was an intelligent, broadsheet journalist, in his early 40s, at a gay awards ceremony. And he didn’t see what the big deal was. At first. Later we all shared a cab to a wine bar and he agreed his friend’s questions were not, as I generously put it, ‘ideal’. I wasn’t sure if I’d really wanted to go to this wine bar with these people, but, after our little chat I said, Come on, let’s have a good night anyway. I meant it.

In the bar I start talking to a smart businessman, who asks me what I do. I’m a journalist, I say. What do you write about, he asks. Equality and diversity, feminism, gay and transgender issues, I reply. Ooh, he says, what’s your interest in transgender people? I tell him I’m transgender. It’s hard not to mention this if I’m discussing my work and why I have been invited to something like the Attitude Awards. Then this otherwise sensible man starts asking me if I’ve had ‘the op’. And so on. This was dessert. So, he continued, what does transgender even mean? This isn’t actually a bad question but God bless Mr Cain all the same for jumping in with: “It means she doesn’t want to answer questions about being transgender all night. OK?”

But what are you Paris? I felt like saying I am Paris Lees, winner of the Positive Role Model Award for LGBT at the National Diversity Awards 2012, Radio 1 and Channel 4’s first trans woman presenter and top of the Independent on Sunday’s Pink List of influential gay, lesbian, bi and trans people. I wanted to say that because they made me feel like my genitals are the most important thing about me. And don’t get me wrong, they are good… so good, but there’s a little more to me than that, you know? Instead I moved on, flirted with the cutest guy there, drank some pink champagne and, finally, got a black cab home.

If any of the people I met that night are reading this, take my answer down as I’m only going to say it once.

I am a woman. On a mission.


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26 thoughts on “Are you a man or a woman? Yes, thanks.

  1. Kaye Martin says:

    ….. a woman. On a mission.

    Indeed you are, and successful. Go get ‘em girl!

  2. Gareth Stevenson says:

    Well said babe x

  3. stephbk123 says:

    Reblogged this on CHRONICLES and commented:
    Fantastic post! Strange how people can be so ignorant and unaware of how forward they’re being, even at such an event!
    To be honest, it’s my dream to attend something like that. You are an inspiration.

  4. Jamie angus says:

    Paris, You are identified by other things than your gender or sexuality. I don’t say “Hi I’m Jamie Angus a woman and bisexual.” I say I’m a professor or an engineer.

    • ParisLees says:

      I hear you, but people were asking me if I was gay, because so many people at the event were. So why shouldn’t I answer that I am at an LGBT event because I am trans? And if people ask me what I write about when I tell them I’m a journalist, how should I respond?

      • Kyros says:

        Respond honestly, if that’s a problem, then its their problem. One can see the “isim” in peoples eyes and the prejudice in their Aura.

    • Anna Sthetic says:

      Jamie, I’m sorry but I don’t think your comment is fair. I think it’s reasonable to expect to say ‘I’m transgender’ in conversation without anybody demanding to know the status of your genitalia.

      Sometimes I feel like there’s a culture of shame around this – there’s this idea that having a non-standard identity and bringing it up in conversation is the same as having legs and wearing a short skirt – we should all cover our legs up and never mention our gayness or queerness or trans*ness (shhh, it’s a word!) because when we do it’s our fault if other people then choose to make us uncomfortable. Both of those modes of thinking are fucked in the head.

      I don’t lead with my gender or sexuality when I’m meeting someone either, but I damned well expect to be able to say ‘I’m queer’ when it comes up in conversation without people demanding a round up of my sexual history. Paris is entitled to the same amount of respect. Surely this is a no-brainer.

      Also, she was not going up to people and saying ‘Hi, I’m Paris, I’M TRANSGENDER.’ Implying that other people’s actions are her fault because you’ve decided that she’s ‘identifying herself’ by the wrong facets of her identity is a bit rubbish, really.

  5. Becky Stine says:

    I’m pretty sure asking a straight cis person details about their genitals is not generally accepted – why is it ok to grill a trans person? It’s no one’s business who you sleep with or with what genitals.

    I’m pretty sure I’d tell such people, “A gentleman doesn’t ask, and a lady never tells.” Or whatever terms suit the occasion. They don’t own you just because they’re curious.

  6. Nell Estee says:

    I’m sorry this happened Paris. It must have marred what should have been a positive event for you. This happens so often to me. Are you pre op, post opp, have you had the op, are you gay? The people that ask these questions seem to think they have a licence to ask. At an lgbt picnic recently this woman asked me about my sexuality. I didn’t tell her my orientation but explained that seeing me as gay if I was into men was not appropriate and that as a trans woman if I was into women that would make me a lesbian. Because she was an out lesbian she wouldn’t accept this. So I asked her if she would appply this view to a woman who had had a hysterectomy and was attracted to women. I usually reply to these questions now with this answer: ‘Why do you want to know? ‘ There is only one situation where I can think that anyone other than a doctor needs to know about my genitalia and I’m not that sort of woman.

  7. As an older woman born transsexual (to use the medical definition applicable at the time) I have found the whole transgender movement (dominated by the gay fantasy of women with a penis) exactly as you describe. “Are you post or pre op?” is a standard male question probably based on both the heterosexual male view of “having sex with you would make my mates think I’m gay” and the homosexual one of “you are of interest to me if you have a penis”.

    In Manchester where I live the view that a woman through surgery is a bad outcome for a gay man dominates the politics, health service and the social / entertainment division of the city. Woman is not seen as acceptable as you must be a “trans” something.

    The way I’ve found to be accepted as a woman in society is to remove myself from all aspects of LGB which I felt I was able to do once same sex marriage became a forgone conclusion.

    My last contribution was to get HM Government to confirm that a Gillick competent child has the legal right to both puberty delaying drugs & hormones and then surgery at 16. The NHS with it’s bogus “mental health practitioners” will continue to resist but it would cost them dear in compensation through the courts. These dinosaur psychiatrists also try to avoid the Mental Capacity Act in terms of making psychiatric management unnecessary and the Gender Recognition Act in terms of the legal definition of woman.

    So good luck on taking your “I am a woman on a mission” agenda forward and make sure they don’t turn you into a transgender don Quijote de la Mancha.

  8. Mae Rogers says:

    This was a lovely and encouraging article.Why is everyone so concerned about what is,or is not between our legs?

  9. Jesse says:

    Personally, I would never ask a trans* person about their genitals unless I wanted to sleep with them. Given that you’re a beautiful women, maybe that’s what’s behind it.

    (I’d also ask first if they’d be terribly bothered if I asked the usual personal questions, and offer that I’d be happy to answer any questions they may have regarding my genitals, and explain that I wouldn’t be asking unless I was genuinely interested in those parts, and becoming acquainted with them along with the rest of the person, but that the answers to those questions wouldn’t affect my desire to get to know them.)

  10. stephanie says:

    Hi, believe it or not I can relate to this story.

    I have had many similar incidents happen. However the majority of these people are of goodwill who simply do not know about our issues and you have to educate them. Yes you do get the people who are genuinely threaten you, but thank god this is a minority.

    I try hard not to be emotional and to be very matter of fact about this sort of stuff. After all it is they who have the problem. Yes I have felt like an alien from the planet Zod.

    One of my classic encounters occurred this year. I had been invited to a friends birthday who is a gay. It was a community event and many people from the LGTBI community were there. (Sorry for being Australian but we include the “I”)

    I began speaking to two older lesbians about this and that. One of women reaches over gently pulls my hair and asks “is this real?”, “Of course” I say. There is no apology from the woman concerned for touching my hair.

    I detach and realise she does not know what a transgender person is. The conversation carries on normally with me being myself trying to educate somebody who should know better. When I told my straight friends they were absolutely horrified.

    I hope the above helps and that you realise you are not alone.

    Stephanie

  11. Katie J says:

    I’m curious, did Paul O’grady mention Lilly Savage?! I’m hoping that one day she will make a comeback. Also thanks for an interesting article.

  12. Jason S. says:

    My normal response to learning that someone is Trans* is ‘What pronouns do you prefer?’ So far, that seems to work for me, and when someone actually asks me, instead of just assuming that I use female, or even assuming that I am Cis, that makes my day.

  13. I think its horrific that someone should ask you “have you had the op”. How dare they. I can understand that people can be curious but hell would you say, let me see yours??? No you wouldn’t. How disrespectful to treat anyone in that way. Go you, keep going. I think its very brave of you to even tell people, as still in this day and age there is ignorance.
    I remember being in a gay bar once, at the time I had very large breasts. I have since had a reduction and a gay man asked if they were real and could he have a feel. Yes they are real and no you cant have a feel. He was very disgruntled, I’m gay he said. Its not like its sexual. Well I sad whop your willy out and give us a feel. He declined and I made my point! So you see people shouldn’t be affronted when they say something rude to have someone stand up to them.
    As I said your a brave and courageous woman – just what females need :)

  14. Tara Starr says:

    Another good piece Paris.

    I wonder you shouldn’t simply have a ‘cover all’ spiel that you might trot out in such situations. A monologue of sorts that may be rolled out to the hard of thinking/feeling.
    It might save you being ‘fished in’.
    I am not nearly so much in the public eye but confess to an ever expanding level of weariness when caught in similar situations.. (A sadistic urge in assisting the thoughtless to feel small and inferior invariably gets the better of me…)
    ‘See? Now where would be if we all behaved and spoke in such a thoughtless, crass manner? Stings on the end of a sharp barb, doesn’t it?

    It strikes me that much of this stems from a malaise where basic courtesy in general is concerned…
    Oranges are not the only fruit and TG people are not the only ones on the end of a crass or obtuse comment. (And you thought we were special ;) )
    A lack of social interaction, (I was at an 8 piece dinner party last week. At one point, 5 of them were on Blackberrys..).
    ‘And this is progress, is it?’, I remember thinking.
    An endless general diet of cruel, mean spirited telly, ‘Eastenders’ (‘Ere, I wanna word wiv’ you…),Gordon Ramsey (Aggresively swearing at and bullying people makes you rich, popular and famous… Surely that must be the way to go??)

    I won’t even get into venal bits of loo roll masquerading as newspapers.

    Bottom line? All grist to mill. Disappointing but stands to reason nes’t pas?
    What really can you expect?

    Teaching basic levels of courtesy to a grown adult is a fool’s errand, particularly to those who might be expected to know better and comments such as,
    ‘Are you a woman? Are you a man? Are you a third sex? What are you?’ stem far more from a lack of care and empathy than a lack of education.

    Bottom line. One should never argue with a fool. People might not know the difference… ;)

    Love,
    Tara Starr xxx

  15. the2amgirl says:

    Very sorry to read about your experience. The first bit that actually struck me was you mentioning lots of people at the events asking you whether you were gay and the reason for your presence. I went to some university LGBT events in a B capacity and there were a range of people there for a range of reasons – it was considered very duff etiquette to even ask someone directly what their sexuality was or why they were there, let alone anything about their genitals or sex life. I generally live by the principle that much of what I might want to know about another person’s life unfolds when listening to them and anything else isn’t my business.

  16. Samantha says:

    Paris, you dont ‘look’ like peoples ‘stereotypical image’ of a transsexual.

    The problem is you are too damn normal looking (meant in the best possible way x)

  17. Angella Dee says:

    Welcome to the real (cruel) world. Lots of famous types and supposed role models are actually extremely simple and rude..

  18. Melissa says:

    Not just a women, but a successful one :-) x Some people are just completely moronic and still think they are enlightened.

  19. Craig Whyte says:

    Size of that hand on Celia Imrie’s shoulder!!!!!

  20. Claire G. says:

    What they did to you is called transphobia. LGBT doesn’t mean LGB and T allowed if they show their genitals to everyone who want to see them.

    *Hugs* from a trans sister from france.

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