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.)
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.