I’m standing alone in a Portakabin toilet. The smell is a mixture of disinfectant and yesterday’s urine. The word on the door reads ‘Gents’. That’s me. I’m a ‘Gent’.
I could feel my brain giving up as I, dressed as a girl, caressed three men with women’s bodies in a lesbian style while simultaneously wondering whether it was, let’s be honest, “well gay”, to feel, to some extent, sexually attracted to these men even though instinctively they were women to me.
I’m joined by a man wearing a tracksuit top and some peddle pushers. The man is Thai, quite small and has piercing brown eyes. He smiles at me and I notice he has gold rings on most of his fingers. ‘I have very soft hands,’ the man tells me. Then he holds up some baby-wipes and an orange Bic razor and adds, “I’m going to shave you.”
I take off my t-shirt and lift my left arm to reveal armpit hair that is visibly wet with sweat. The man, who’s called Sak, catches my eye and smiles. He begins removing the hair from my armpit with short delicate strokes of the orange razor. I twist my neck to watch this process. “Relax,” he tells me. “I’m gentle.”
After my armpits Sak shaves the hair beneath by belly-button.
“Can you undo?” he asks, pointing at my belt.
“Ok,” I say.
He stops an inch or two below the beltline. I’m relieved when he tells me that he needn’t shave any lower as my knickers and stockings will hide the remaining hair.
“Are you a good dancer?” Sak asks.
“Not really,” I reply.
“Do you need a pee-pee?”
I am still contemplating the question about ‘a pee-pee’ when Sak suddenly disappears behind me. I look down at my smooth stomach. It’s strangely repulsive; over-exposed.
I’m just about to turn around to locate Sak when my boxer shorts are suddenly pulled down to my knees. A hand reaches through my legs, gropes around a little then disappears back through my legs taking my penis and my testicles with it. It’s Sak. He’s pulling very hard. I go into shock. My throat dries. Something goes wrong and my penis returns briefly to the front of my body.
But not for long. Because the hand returns, too, and it grabs the penis and the balls and I laugh nervously and stare at the ceiling. No one had thought to warn me about the penis-binding. I guess I should have known. I can’t quite believe it’s happening. Then to my horror the toilet door swings open and I can briefly see a seating area outside where people are relaxing and drinking coffees in the sun.
“Don’t come in,” I blurt out.
A shaven-headed man of about twenty-four walks into the Portakabin. He moves towards the urinal, unbuttoning his flies then he sees me, stops, performs a double take and turns statue still. I look into his eye. It’s awkward. Sak is too busy to notice the silence that the man and I share, which is broken only when the man sniffs, smiles and says, “All right?”
Am I all right?
Interesting question to ask a six-foot-four, freshly shaved man standing in a toilet with a Thai guy kneeling behind him trying, seemingly, to tuck his penis into his arsehole. “I’m good, thanks,” I say.
The young man nods, takes a step backwards and disappears into a cubicle. Moments later he performs a loud fart but by this stage I am too numb to care. With my penis somehow bound to my backside by my boxer shorts I have been dressed in skin coloured stockings and black, lacy knickers and I am being steered by Sak away from the Portakabin.
I sit down in a chair and the feeling reminds me of being punched lightly in the nuts and I become nostalgic for the playground fighting of my youth. A young Thai woman appears from nowhere, brings her face close to mine and begins to scrutinize me. I look down her top. She has breasts. She’s pretty and her name is Nite. She frowns and says something in Thai that I think concerns my eyebrows. Someone replies from across the room and the next thing I see is a razorblade pinched in Nite’s fingertips coming quickly towards my face. “Close your eyes”, she says. “Close them.”
Nite, like the other Ladyboys of Bangkok, was born a man. Her breasts are the result of hormonal treatment and her curves the result of surgery. My challenge for the day was to become a Ladyboy myself and to learn and perform a choreographed routine with three Ladyboys to the Katy Perry song, ‘I Kissed A Girl.’ I was given a glimpse into what goes on behind the kitsch dance routines and lip-synching that the public pay to see.
As my make-up was applied and my eyebrows were scraped away by Nite’s razor, I felt increasingly accepted in the backstage area. The Ladyboys tend to sleep late and start to come in during the afternoon to begin preparing for the evening show. They sit at altars of sequins; all turquoises, pinks and blues. Here they apply their make-up. The more Nite cakes me in foundation the more the Ladyboys start coming over to meet me.
“Do you like coffee,” says one girl.
“Yes,” I say.
“Will you be my boyfriend?”
Although I’m tempted to suggest that the two of us make a b-line for the nearest Nandos, events get in the way. Sak marches over and proudly tells me he has my bra and my red sequinned hot-pants. “Great,” I say.
Nite pulls me by the chin to face her and begins gluing false eyelashes to the lids of my eyes. In the mirror beyond her shoulder, I watch the girl who asked me to be her boyfriend as she removes her t-shirt and then her bra. Her breasts, hang naturally and I’m struck by the feminine curves of her body. She was born a man, of course, but in this environment words and categories begin to feel defunct. Language becomes a broken playground. I was surprised to find I began to appreciate and find elegance in the term ‘Ladyboy’, which previously felt flippant and derogatory and reminded me most of Alan Partridge.
During this phase of my transformation I began to resent my inability to become a convincing woman. My face, irrespective of all the make-up, still looked pointy and blokey. When I examined my stomach I saw that there was stubble visible even where Sak had shaved. I was fat compared to the other Ladyboys, too. And as my day-to-day face disappeared in front of my eyes, I began to see my body as an enemy, something that was rebelling against me, something that was unsatisfactory and flawed. I’d never really felt like that before.
The finishing touch was a brown wig that confirmed what was already clear: I was a pretty rubbish woman. It also made clear why The Ladyboys of Bangkok work. The Ladyboys are black-belt transsexuals who are so utterly convincing that they are able to force others to evaluate their preconceptions of gender. In their presence, one is forced to acknowledge that there is whole lot of space between the categories of ‘Man’ and ‘Woman’ that goes unexplored and unacknowledged by mainstream society. Put simply, gender is more than just a two horse race. The Ladyboys, represent, in effect, a third sex. They create a basic confusion of the sexes that to solve one has to move beyond the traditional language of gender; beyond man and woman.
That aside, the most important thing was I had to dance to Katy Perry with my penis up my bum.
Rehearsals began. The last time I’d been on a stage was singing in a band. It struck me as I practised the simple dance moves with the Ladyboys how, when it comes down to it, the stage has got an awful lot to do with the performance of a sexuality. It’s an obvious point, perhaps. But it felt so clear as I watched the girls enjoying themselves, in their element, as I buggered up (so to speak) every practice run.
It’s why young people love to get up and sing their hearts out and play instruments and, in effect, perform their heterosexuality or their homosexuality or their asexuality or their bisexuality. In that sense the stage performs the same function for the Ladyboys as it did for Elvis or continues to for Britney Spears, Kasabian or whoever.
The lights went down and me and three Ladyboys got into our starting positions. The Ladyboy nearest me came close and whispered, “You know, you should start on the hormones.” It wasn’t clear whether she was joking.
For the record, I was crap. Dancing in heels is rock-hard and I was out of time and devoid of grace, composure, correct posture. I basically looked like a second rate drag act. At the very end of the dance the four of us had to come together in a choreographed pose. The funny thing was, we had to sort of pretend we were attracted to each other, like we were lesbians, I guess. I could feel my brain giving up as I, dressed as a girl, caressed three men with women’s bodies in a lesbian style while simultaneously wondering whether it was, let’s be honest, “well gay”, to feel, to some extent, sexually attracted to these men even though instinctively they were women to me. I gave up in the end and just put my arms around the two nearest Ladyboys and smiled until the lights came up.
I said goodbye to Sak and to Nite and the other Ladyboys. It had been good to belong, if only for a short time, to these guys and their extreme world. Normal life smelt average and unchallenging as I wandered into Piccadilly Gardens.
To my great surprise, I found myself doing a ridiculously masculine, John Wayne style, slouching walk. I came to a halt on Market Street to reflect. In a window display of neutered white mannequins, I caught my eye. I am a ‘Gent’, I thought. I wandered home.
Joe Stretch is the lead singer of Manchester band Performance. He has also had two novels published by Vintage, Friction and Wildlife. Wildife is available from Amazon.