Are you ready for the freak show?
Watching Adam Pearson, a British TV performer who has a similar genetic condition to the famous Elephant Man, doing a documentary on freak shows, I remembered a part in Kate Bornstein’s first book “Gender Outlaw.”
In it, she went to a freak show and was given a ring by the giant, acknowledged and welcomed into the family.
Adam started the film expecting to find something seedy and exploitative about freak shows in the US. In the end, though, he finds family.
The issue Adam has to face is discussed by every different person he meets in the film. Does he find dignity by sticking to political correctness, by holding high minded notions that intend to erase diversity, or does he find dignity by embracing his own freakishness, owning his own difference in the world?
This is the question that every transperson has to answer for themselves. Is our dignity in how we demand the treatment we want, or is our dignity in how we own our own uniqueness?
I read “Gender Outlaw” in the parking lot of the bookstore that ordered it special for me in 1994. Kate and I spent time together back in the day. Readers of this blog will know how I answer the question, and many will avoid my work because of it.
When I watch Adam Pearson or any of the other people he meets in the special, I see their human hearts. Are we humans trying to live a spiritual life, or spirit living a human life? Are we primarily our bodies or primarily our spirit? Are we defined by the whims of biology or by the spark inside?
I never assumed that I could have control over the way that people saw me. I couldn’t enforce any kind of correctness on them, no matter how much I might have wanted to.
Instead, I knew that the only control I have is in the moment between stimulus and response, that instant when I choose to react from my stinging sensation or from my sensible consideration. It is me who has to get past it before anyone else can.
This is what Adam learns, even though it isn’t what he thought he would learn. He understands he is talking to family members, people who have had to work out their own relationship with both the crowd and their creator. Are they broken, abject, angry people or are they just the way some humans are, with their own special set of gifts, gifts with both a price and a reward?
Claiming our tender humanity is easier, at least in my experience, when we let go of trying to demand the world treat us like a “regular” person. Moving beyond that trope lets us accept that every, every person is a special person, with their own freaky parts, even if we can’t see them on the outside.
Are those freaky bits bad or good? I don’t know and I don’t care. They just are, part of the sublime mix of every human who is full of trade-offs, coming with a bundle of strengths and weaknesses which interlock to make them who they are.
Trying to judge people on just some bits, on the an easy way to label them and dump them into an identity box is just wrong. It’s bad politics and it is far from queer affirmative, where we celebrate individuals and not group memberships.
I know that I judge people on the choices they make and not on their labels. Why should I assume other people should see me in another way?
I find Adam much easier to embrace as he embraces himself rather than trying to punch through as being normative which requires him to engage his defenses. It is his vulnerability that reveals his human heart, and that part of him is compelling to me, holding the precious lessons he learned from living a life outside the norms.
Letting your freak flag fly, as they tend to say while reminding you to keep Austin weird, is a tough thing to do. It is, I know, even tougher when you feel like you don’t have a choice about that exposure, when you feel like you are outed without your consent.
I learned early how to walk in the world as eccentric, different, weird and freaky. What I didn’t want, what I never wanted, was for people to see me exposing my tender trans heart and think I was just pulling some kind of gimp act. That’s why my original defences were around coming out as gender-fuck, a guy-in-a-dress, where I knew I was invoking freakdom.
Showing my authentic and battered trans heart, though, isn’t about claiming odd, it is about exposing a frayed and powerful truth. I have been so moved when I find a family member who understands that, one who has integrated queer and freaky into their worldview so they can see past the externals and see the spirit inside.
Seeing past the externals means facing the internals. That means going on the journey into our own hells, past the slights and stares that hurt us, into a place where we have compassion for those who are disquieted by us because we touch something deep in them, and having compassion for our own self beyond a life of disquiet.
I can’t control other people. I can only control myself. Negotiating other people’s assumptions, fears and disquiet often feels like an enormous burden as I know that their feelings are about them, no matter how much they project the cause onto my difference.
Finding connections, though, with other freaks in the world, with other family members, well, that helped Adam, even if he never believed it would. And it helped me.
Maybe it can help you, too.