Everyone knows those Lou Reed lyrics, shaving excess body hair, and trans-gendering, quicker than an intercontinental flight. But what do you do when it’s a friend, what pronoun is used, how do you act?
Ian was a small, lightweight person; I used to think his build assisted him being fleet-of-foot as a runner. No doubting he could run, and fast. Successfully completed marathons, half marathons and capable of passing the bulk of a triathlon field, including me, during early stages of run component. Not an exclusive club, I suck as a runner, plenty get past me. I’m pretty sure Ian even climbed to lofty heights in our sport, and finished an ultimate ultra-event - an Ironman. Armed with his full names, possible to find a trail of event results out there in record keeping ether. But I wouldn’t want to embarrass the person Ian is now by allowing an all-area pre-transition pass.
A more precise description for Ian might be petit. Is it possible to apply such a term to a male? Perhaps yes, but not in a complimentary manner? Mere slip of a thing…small framed…whippet-ish, nothing listed suits an endurance athlete. Ian had thinning, reddish hair kept super short; his freckled face reflected an enjoyment for an outdoor, physical lifestyle. At social events he typically seated quietly on peripheries, seeming to observe. Without finding himself a group of close comrades, or aura of buddies.
Two loners, perhaps why we became friends. Once engaged in conversation, I always found Ian easy to talk with, possessing, at least sports-wise, some common experiences. Of deep quandaries elsewhere in his life, I remained blissfully ignorant, like so many others who took gender as unalterable. Chief conversation topics, recent races, who was wining what, times over distances and racing strategies for upcoming events. Our chat times occurred while we waited for in-crowds to arrive at functions. Both of us habitually un-fashionably early arrivals.
Being early 1980s any friendship with members of the opposite sex set tongues a-wagging. So I want to get rid of any contributions, or amplifications to rumors right here – we were not intimate! Ian fitted under my armpit and I always evoked a height restriction. ‘Taller than me, or you don’t to get on this ride.’
A stipulation maintained through years being a gangly teenager with dance partners staring straight at my minimal cleavage. Makes my cheeks burn now to think of parallel dilemmas for Ian, out there in 1970s teenage-boy-land.
Like many sporting groups nick names were applied; his being Butch. I always wondered why; when Ian was anything but. I suppose for the same reason Sam was called Big Sam. That, and how I found out he wasn’t big, in ways other than height, however, is a whole other story. Pity similar reverse psychology was not applied to my nickname: mouth from the south, mobile megaphone or just plain Loud, most frequent options.
Tick me off as an inclusion onto loud and rude lists. Explanation for wide berth I am given. Frequently increased by geographic distances associated with my job. After a stint working in a rural location I began to notice differences in Ian. Yet with smile still as welcoming. His eyebrows took on a cultured shape. Grew his hair longer. At first I assumed those longer tresses a reaction to thinning on top – same as many men compensate for early baldness by growing a ponytail, or beard. But Ian sported a lack of facial hair. Yet his skin, always dotted with rusty freckles and clear tone looked smoother. Remember we lived in era well before male cosmetics, facials or skin treatments became popular. Maybe he was already taking hormones, never said, least of all not to me. We still spent time a cycle-pack on weekends. Amongst our Lycra clad numbers clicking out of pedals between obligatory coffee stops were a fair share of muscular, shaved legs. But no one pointed, or remarked, ‘…hey babe, walk on the wild side….’
Plenty testosterone spilled across a wide verandah on South Terrace, engaged in multiple conversations. Someone up my end dropped a bomb shell. ‘Butch is undergoing gender re-alignment therapy.’ News offered up at a secretive, low volume. With my reputation for gossip, voluminous and inappropriate comments I wondered why tell me? Glancing over, I struggled to understand, just what this meant? Butch did show subtle changes to his body language. Surely I imagining it? Yes, he did cross his legs more. I’m confused by androgynous cycle gear.
Anyway, who allocates gender traits on us? Our numbers swelled with tough, strong, Amazonian warrior women. Fit, lean, men and women with faces reflective of helmet hair, wind and sun. Shaved legs. Why apply a leg razor? Preventative for grazing injuries if we collide with road surfaces. Also smoothness equates to less resistance, makes one ride a bike faster, or merely because it feels good.
I remembered a leg competition one year as a race lead-up activity during a carbo-loading pre-event dinner. With identities hidden, athletes paraded, visible from thighs down. Impossible to guess male from female.
Cycle tops don’t do anything to accentuate breasts, nor do comfort pads in bike shorts show anatomical differences. Factor in notions of muscular rather than voluptuous and girly hips do a vanishing act. Plus women in my world eagerly accepted any challenge involved in racing against men. Bonus factor about triathlons is male-female plus professional-nonprofessional all race over identical courses. Take a casual glance and any male female dichotomy blends and realigns to athletic bodies.
Hearing those words, gender realignment…provided a huge quandary, Ian’s nickname!? Suddenly inappropriate to refer to someone struggling to gain a womanly aura as Butch, borderline insulting, back then. Ian wasn’t gay, and even if she was, (popular urban myths are saturated with ideas being a female athlete an obvious precursor to homosexuality) I’d still not holler out this long established nickname. So I avoided crowing – how’s things, Butch? Wouldn’t want to fuel sundry other café patron’s homophobic attitudes. No, today our exchange amounted to a friendly greeting, nodded across Lycra wearing masses. ‘Where you working these days, Kaz?’ I am asked. A distraction which kept at bay any in-depth exchanges about Ian’s new lifestyle. Far be it for me to avoid talking about my own life and experiences. I can remember other’s attempts to poke fun at Ian’s changing persona, what perfume you wearing? Changed your deodorant, have you Butch? Nice how you color matched nail vanish to the new bike. Put this down to an expectation everyone in our bike-pack group accepted occasional sledging.
While I spent much of the following two years overseas, Ian underwent major changes. Including gender realignment surgery in Thailand. She emerged from dressings as Janice. I can only imagine what a painful, disruptive, and ultimately uplifting process. I shake my head contemplating conversations between Janice’s family members. Beyond my capacity to picture or make up these exchanges. Telling parents and siblings, maybe even grandparents, phew take more balls than I got. Trauma of the inter-personal type, as well as recovery from surgery, not to mention physically transferring gender. Penis removal, mere mention of such sees many men protect their genitals. Braver than me.
He was now a she! Janice, tripped over into further point of Lou Reed lyric’s and took a walk on the wild side. After so-called ‘cosmetic’ changes Janice began a lengthy argument to gain permission to race triathlons in his new gender. I understood this included blood tests, doctor’s statements and several attempts to fight for a right to take part in a familiar sport in a category relevant to his a new set of genitalia. Was Ian a test case, did Janice gain status as a trail-blazer? What name and pronoun should I use? Seemed to me far too great a struggle to pursue in our small triathlon community and I wondered why put herself through all this? From third parties I’d heard Janice’s application initially rejected, followed by a re-presentation, and only on her third attempt did state controlling Triathlon sports authorities conceded Janice gained permission to race as a female. Full contingent of medical evidence helped prove - she was in fact a woman. I, for one, applauded her need to work against discrimination and keep some continuity in her life. Triathlon does become an obsession. Evidenced by a long standing joke: How do you know someone is a triathlete? Wait a while, they will tell you.
Going through such exhaustive processes, completing paperwork, gaining permission and dealing with people, racing a race – let’s face it, ARE two different matters. My next awareness of Janice was as we moved toward start lines of a major Olympic distance triathlon. Several thousand athletes, about to enter a still, mirror surfaced estuary. A big state championship event, drawing a huge field, milling about in typical teeming mass group start crowds. I noticed Janice, dressed in slick new two pieces race outfits everyone wore, emblazoned with sponsorship bike shop logos.
‘There isn’t even a bump there!’ says a local guy, Peter, at a volume way too loud. ‘What are you talking about?’ I asked as I tried to encourage him to walk out of earshot. ‘Women have VW bonnet things happening, curved like. Take a look IT doesn’t.’ I want to shake him, until his eyeballs dislodge, picking up some form of compassion as they tumble out. Despite these violent impulses, I manage to say. ‘As if I am going to walk past and take a long hard look. How embarrassing. People will wonder why I’m ogling her box.’ ‘Don’t you wonder what it looks like?’
‘No. But they can’t make her too anatomically different.’ ‘Well in the dark. A few drinks it probably all looks the same.’ Peter’s still staring, no matter how hard I attempted to encourage him to focus on positioning himself for the imminent swim start. My head is off wondering why the hell I am talking to this creep. Then he takes it to a whole new level. ‘You think she still gets a boner?’ ‘What? You are disgusting!’
No one was more stunned than me to see Janice’s small frame ahead, on the second lap of our run course. When his body made more testosterone, no way I caught Ian, but here with a complete new hormonal mix I am outpacing, even passing Janice. I offered a token encouragement, ‘not far to go, well done!’ Months later when we raced at the largest, longest and last event of the year, I encountered Janice again. Something about a hard half Ironman distance (70.3) triathlon in a windy location meant your digestive systems can tumble into dysfunctional mode and I felt distinctly ill and a little depressed after finishing. Akin to most, I tried to qualify for a full Ironman triathlon distance race. Sure my best now included missing out gaining qualified status by one or two places, at worst, a mid-field also ran. So burdened with internal physical and mental trauma I decided to use a change room-shower facility well away from more crowded transition areas. My mind set just couldn’t cope with typical, casual enquiries like, ‘so…how did you go?’
As I arrived Janice was just finishing her ablutions. So I took a chance to make a supportive comment. ‘I really admire your courage.’ ‘Thanks, I wish I’d done it 15 years ago.’ Quick mental arithmetic, ‘what in your late teens? You really think so?’ ‘Probably not, but I wouldn’t have spent so much time feeling as if I was in the wrong body.’ ‘Well, I want to congratulate you.’ She beamed, I felt all warm and gooey.
That was the extent of our exchange. Women’s change rooms; definitely inappropriate places for extended philosophical, life choice affirmation interactions. Sure enough when I spoke to Peter, couldn’t help myself, about this exchange, he responded, quick as a flash, ‘did you see his box? What did it look like?’ I tried to block out his bigotry focusing on a stronger desire to learn about recipients of Ironman qualifying slots.
Once a year a real freak show called Ironman Triathlon invaded an Australian, and many other country’s quiet country towns. Back then you couldn’t just enter. No, most submitted to painful processes of gaining a qualifying slot, or at the very least work inside contacts to win privileged lottery slots. Regardless of how, all those people, more than you expect, want to test boundaries of human endurance with mammoth distances, all in the one day, of swimming- 3.8kms, riding- 180kms and running a full marathon (42.2km). Makes quiet an impact on host town demographics, not to mention taut bodies all Lycra clad. Normal people don’t even contemplate using a taxi for those kinds of distances, let alone get through self-propelled. Each one of those events is beyond normality, let alone all three; end to end, with only change your clothing and you must be finished by midnight parameters.
Extensive gossip buzzed about Janice’s wild card entry. According to some she’d written and made an application, (a familiar scenario). Due to numbers of athletes picking up qualifier status slots being down this particular year Janice succeeded. A whole string of questions encroached around my brain. What other athletes might think as we transitioned through a large marquee and undressed from swim to cycle, and or cycle to run gear? Inside transition areas some girls take an opportunity to completely undress. What if others knew of a transgender person raced amongst us? Was I going to tell anyone? Mess with their mindsets. Make a public announcement about something so personal. Nope; definitely not. Even I know when to protect someone by keeping my mouth shut. Some Ironman friends met Janice one morning for a swim. They’d heard about her. It’s hard to quell rumors and prejudices in our ranks. ‘Fuckin ugly chick!’ ‘Wouldn’t screw her, ever.’ I experienced mounting annoyance, bad taste in my mouth, wanting this sledging way past funny to stop. I waved to Janice across crowds as we sit down a pre-event party. She smiled widely. Happy to chat about her lead-up training and finding long ride locations. And sundry other problem all of us needed to solve.
‘I am so happy to get an Ironman qualifying slot. Going to try again, after I move down south, around Albany way.’ I listened about her plans, a search for sea-side cottage, possibilities to transfer her employment. And can’t help thinking Janice planned yet another new beginning and perhaps anonymity she deserved. But Janice, dithers into becoming anxious, and unsettled. More than pre-Ironman nerves. We all suffered from pre-race jitters, but back when she was he, I am sure Ian’s done one of these Ironman events. So why so apprehensive? New territory as a woman? Pinched myself, Ironman, even triathlon, isn’t about gender at all! How does anyone feel comfortable about unreasonable distances, physical challenge and endurance required? Nope, it wasn’t nerves, because Janice’s focus was fixed on a small leather bag over her shoulder. Eventually she began to cry, ‘I can’t find the key to my room….’ I walked with her toward an exit, hopefully with a comforting arm around her tiny frame. ‘Perhaps if we retrace your steps, we’ll find it.’ ‘What’s the problem, ladies?’ asked a huge but friendly door official. Turned out someone found and handed her room key in at the door.
Janice went onto race and finish that Ironman Triathlon, not comfortably, but who among us does? I still carry a twinge for someone as tough as her. Hope to see her sandy, freckled face again on day, where ever she lives. Tell her again how much admiration I still bear.