As I’m sure you know, the holiday season can be a dicey, stressful, exhausting time for LGBTIQ+ people. Everyone else, too, I have no doubt, but there’s a particular danger to the family politics quagmire around this time of year for queer and transgender people.
You spend hours at lunch next to increasingly inebriated relatives, getting worse and worse at correctly gendering you and more and more boisterously distressed about that - “she was just saying - sorry, it’s he, he was saying - I’m so sorry, love, I’m trying, but it’s hard to get it right, you understand? Anyway, she was saying…”
Or maybe you just spent Hanukkah explaining to a great aunt that no, Mike is your boyfriend, not your friend who is a boy, and not one of your cousins, remember, we talked about this seven minutes ago? Maybe you’ll spend Boxing Day doing breathing exercises while your Reddit-dwelling edgelord cousin repeatedly asks you to explain what non-binary is, or maybe you’ll sit silent through a spirited discussion about “the whole gay marriage thing” over turkey dinner trying desperately to dust yourself, Thanos-style.
So I wanted to reflect on my first Christmas as an out trans person, in 2014 - not as a nightmare, but as the beginning of something powerfully good for me.
A few days before O’Grady family Christmas lunch, my dad was helping me neaten my undercut. I sat in a chair in front of the bathroom mirror directing him around the back and sides of my head, squawking each time the clippers got too close to the home-bleached, fuzzy duck yellow blond flop on the top of my head (yes, I was that boy).
“By the way,” he said, clippers buzzing next to my ear, “I told my brother and sister about you.”
“About me what?” I ask, knowing exactly about what.
“Told them about, you know, that you’re trans.”
I immediately started contemplating how quickly I could get out of the country.
“Who did, uh, who did they tell?”
“I don’t know”, my dad said, “but I assume they both told your cousins.”
“And Ranny and Fred?”
“Not yet. We’re not sure if they’d...”
“And I’m seeing them in… three days time?”
He buzzed a neat line up the back of my skull. “They’re all fine with it. It’s going to be okay.”
Yep, I thought, time to fake my death.
I want to be clear that I never expected my being trans to be met with anger or disgust by anyone in my family - that was not the reason for my fear and reluctance. The truth is that there’s a unique and far more quiet kind of pain that comes with watching people have to rearrange themselves around your identity. With friends from uni or work colleagues there’s no foundation to dismantle, but with people I’d known all my life - family, neighbours, dance teachers I’d had since the age of five - it killed me to blow up their image of someone they had loved and cared for for 20 years. It felt, and sometimes still feels, selfish, like throwing all that love and work back in their faces.
To feel yourself become a faulty cog, a problem - not to be solved, but worked around - is hard, and as queer people we do it all the time, almost to the point of it being automatic.
So I was scared, not that I’d be cast out, or disbelieved - I was scared I’d be hurt.
That year we did Christmas lunch at a buffet restaurant, for reasons I can’t recall. I arrived in a short sleeved button down, floral Doc Martens, absent a characteristically garish bowtie (I know). I was as dressed down as I got in those days. Everyone greeted each other, hugs and Merry Christmases, when I hit a snag.
I look back on this now and find it supremely funny, though at the time I wanted nothing more than to melt like a Lindt chocolate reindeer. What happened, see, is that my extended family, in an effort to make everything normal - not to ignore it, but to make it no big deal - had forgotten that it was still okay to look at and talk to me. About an hour into lunch things eased into something like a comfortable detente. I realise now that I was waiting for there to be a Moment, some sign of conflict - I waited to become a problem. I waited for over a year, and the ‘problem’ never came. What happened instead was we adjusted, and we made a new normal.
As I was walking back from the bathroom that afternoon I passed my uncle. He stopped me and leaned in conspiratorially.
“I just wanted to say, Charlie’s a great name.”
Unable to deal with what that meant to me, in the moment, I blurted out: “thanks, I made it myself.”
He laughed, and at that point I realised that, probably, I could do this. That’s how we get to normal.
I left early to get ready for a show I was directing later that day. Did I need to leave early? I can’t remember, but I probably didn’t. As I was leaving, my aunt pulled me in for a hug and said “thank you for coming”. There was a meaningful cadence to her voice, like she could see how close I came to fleeing. If I had, I don’t know that we’d have made it past that.
This Christmas, I’ll fly back to Sydney from my new home in Melbourne. My dad will call me son, my mum will call me sweetie and we’ll watch the Christmas specials for whichever British mystery shows are currently on rotation on 13th Street as a mother and gay son must do. My brother will flip me off and call me dickhead and I will whack at him with my cane.
At both family lunches everyone will call me Charlie, unless they forget, which happens less and less these days. My 18-month-old second cousin (who I declared my niece as soon as she was born) will only ever know me as Charlie, and as “uncle”. In her eyes, the world will always be a place where male and female are not fixed identities, where there is far more to gender and identity and expression that what I thought possible when I was growing up. Her world will be built on the assumption that to be trans, or gay, or non-binary, are all normal and can be comfortably occupied identities.
I’ve lost two grandparent since then - one who, once he learned I was trans, was fiercely supportive, even as far as correcting people who called me [REDACTED] during his final weeks; the other, who passed a few months ago, who forgot I was not supposed to be a boy and simply accepted it when she would ask my name and I would say “Charlie”. My remaining grandmother will call me Charles, mostly, and sometimes [REDACTED], but it won’t matter to me, because I remember what it was like before this was normal, and I am grateful for every moment of normalcy I now have.
Where once this part of the year filled me with dread (and whilst it’s still an immensely stressful time), I now feel overwhelmed by how immensely lucky I’ve been. Part of me feels almost guilty for writing this, like I’m bragging, because I know so many people who are denied this kind of familial acceptance, or are forced to hide their identities just to make it through these moments. And I don’t want this story to come across as a self-indulgent attempt at a message of hope, a saccharine It Gets Better-ism. It did get better for me, but that’s not everyone’s experience. What I want is to be able to sit in this moment where my world is safe, and comfortable, and does not question who I am. I want to sit in this little pocket of normal at the dusk of an horrendous year, and remember Love.
Charles O'Grady is a queer playwright an director, and a proud trans man.