You don’t have to remember what you learned in Middle School French when you walk into the Drunken Sailor, but it sure helps.
“Ah, Andrew! Ca va?” asks Miss Teigen Robin, as she welcomes me into the retro-vintage clothing store in downtown Lethbridge. While I wracked my brain for an appropriately Francophone answer, the spunky 20-year-old U of L student had already started grabbing things for me to try on in between random bursts of French. “Where would you like to begin?” she asked with a broad smile.
I responded sheepishly with one of my own in return. I have no clue. Where to begin, indeed.
The previous generations battled racism and sexism—and while those fights are by no means finished—there is a general feeling that our generation’s battle is against homophobia, and the various forms it takes. Despite the fact that Canada legalized equal marriage eight years ago in 2005, and despite various states in the U.S. have already begun homegrown efforts to provide equal marriage rights, the battle against homophobia still has a long road ahead to succeed in fully changing the hearts and the minds of all people. The most oft-neglected in the LGBTQ community is the T for Transgender. American studies show that 50% of individuals who identify as transgender will experience domestic violence or abuse and 25% of them will experience hate-motivated physical or sexual assault. This is a frightening and astounding statistic. I had always thought the battle for LGBTQ rights was heading in the right direction until very recently, wherein I received an education on the intricacies of the trials and tribulations facing transgender individuals.
“Teigen? A hand? I don’t think I’m doing this right.” I shout from inside a closed changing room and a stifling dress.
She pulls the curtain open and, stopping a giggle I assume, pulls my arms and head up and through their respective holes. I thank her and explain as I pull on the petticoat underneath, that as a straight, white male, I’ve rarely had experience with this sort of thing. She laughs as she grabs some of the previous pieces that hadn’t fit over my enormous ribcage and politely corrects me.
“You mean cisgender male, right?” she said with a smile and I nodded in the affirmative. Although such things may seem to be an issue of semantics, time and time again language has proven to be thought. And with an objective to change the hearts and minds of the world, it just seems easier to start with the way we speak.
“Now,” she grins, as she turns and heads into the back room (I swallow, my head poking out awkwardly from between the dressing room curtains.) “How do you feel about adding a wig and shoes into the mix?”
I nod nervously. In for a penny, in for a pound it seems.
Joselyn Plumridge, President of the U of L Pride Club, is particularly versed in the LGBTQ movement, are her insights are eye-opening. “We at pride absolutely value our allied members and any people in the community that want to know more,” Plumridge confides. “That being said, those people who identify as not really within any sexual minority do need to be mindful that the LGBQT movement is not about them.” It’s human nature to develop a personal attachment to important causes, but there must be a vital realization that an ally’s experience is still extremely limited.
“I wouldn’t say [your experience] is representative of a lot of experiences, but it does offer some valuable insight.” When asked the most important quality in being an LGBQT ally, she responds with an articulate and quiet authority: “Humility is probably the most important quality. When you are a member of a majority looking for information about what it’s like to be a minority, the most important thing is to listen, not to speak.”
The theme of the Calgary Pride Parade is Our City, Our Family, but the idea of a Gay Pride parade in one of the most conservative cities in the province—let alone the country—seems a bit counter-intuitive. Although the demographic of Calgary is predominately religious, it also is above the provincial average in regards to gay population, with most recent figures putting the gay Calgarian population at around 4-9% above the mean. The parade first began in 1990, but with participants wearing paper bags over their heads to not only protect their identities, but to protest the stigma that they were associated with. Those who ask, Why don’t we have a straight pride parade? look no farther than there for your answer. This then, will be their 24th year of the event, with having Mayor Naheed Nenshi and Alison Redford attending and participating for the second consecutive time. This though, will be my first pride parade ever—and moreover, my first time dressing in drag.
“We believe in being yourself and expressing yourself. When you walk through our door, there is no judgement,” says Teigen after she helps me do up my black patent heels, “People deserve to be treated with respect regardless sex, sexuality, or gender.” Despite my embarrassment with the situation, Teigen made me feel nothing but comfortable. Although I at first balked at even the thought of taking one step out of my tiny curtained safety zone, by the end of the hour Teigen is taking pictures and calling out poses between adjusting my long auburn wig. Another customer – a young kind faced teenager with braces and paper clip earrings—comes over just to watch me, but eventually ends up complimenting my figure and helping me with some straps. After thanking everyone profusely for their help, I walked out of the Drunken Sailor with my purchases, feeling a sense of serenity.
Two weeks later, I am at Calgary Pride. The parade is fantastic; Premier Redford gives a mediocre speech, but Mayor Naheed Nenshi inspires the crowd with his speech. The after party is, as the kids say, “straight ballin’.”
My fears of cross-dressing in downtown Calgary, which I imagine to be as dangerous as the opening scene from Die Hard 3, are quickly assuaged by a blanket of approval and acceptance, which I see in the faces and attitudes of every person around. As a cisgendered male, I am rarely forced to feel ashamed, anxious or uneasy when it comes to my sexuality. The benefit of privilege is that these thoughts need never occur to the privileged, while others are constantly reminded.
My one experience dressing in drag gave me only a minor education in the emotions surrounding LGBTQ issues, but I was lucky enough to participate in one of the most welcoming events in Alberta. At the end of the day, I had the ability to take off my dress, remove my make-up, return my breasts to my sock drawer, and quickly return to a state where my gender identity and sexuality were not questioned. I had the privileged of being able to return to feeling comfortable in my own skin. There are many of those for whom that’s not nearly as simple. It is a battle to not only understand the exclusion of those in the LGBTQ community, but also to fight for their inclusion. It is a battle that will be fought by listening – not be speaking. It is also a battle that still long from being won.