Thursday 18 June 2009

Irish Independent

There was a nice write-up in the Irish Independent, following the Dublin reading that Richard and I did. Without Richard, of course. Because of the chicken pox. But Andrea Smith pieced out our imperfections with her thoughts. And they used my fave 'group' photo from the walk, at Strumble Head in Pembs. And I've got killer cheekbones. It was worth it for that alone! Thanks, Andrea!

Following a friend on the difficult road across gender

Richard Beard had a long way to go when he first saw the man with a pearl earring, writes Andrea Smith

Sunday June 14 2009

Drusilla Marland was born the second of four brothers.

She is on good terms with both of her ex-wives.

She was thrilled to become a dad.

Thus author Richard Beard describes the breakdown of grammatical orthodoxy that is an occasional side effect of describing the circumstances of his close friend, Drusilla Philippa Marland, known as Dru.

When Richard first got to know Dru, she was then called Drew -- a motorcycling male engineer in his 30s with whom he went on camping and walking holidays. These trips were a back-to-nature quest for Richard, reminding him of what it meant to be truly alive and what it meant to be a man.

Then, after 10 years of thinking he knew everything about the friend he shared a two-person tent with, came the call that threw him into confusion. The following day, Richard went to Dru's flat in Bristol, and tried not to react when he saw his friend in pearl earrings. He noted the shaved forearms too, as he listened to his friend's request to think of him as a woman from then on.

By his own admission, Richard didn't cover himself in glory with his initial reaction, as he describes the thoughts that initially ran through his mind.

"You are a 43-year-old man whose wife has just left you for another bloke, taking your daughter with her. You have a dismantled crankshaft on the table in your front room. You drink lunchtime pints of Smiles Old Tosser and you work in the engine room of a 7,000-ton passenger ship. You are not a woman."

After this, Richard went home, read books on the subject and did his best to understand what had just been presented to him. Still seeking answers, he suggested writing Dru's story, and by his own admission, he was partly trying to catch his friend out.

"If Drusilla is not true, then in her place sits a fizzing combination of modern afflictions," he says in the book. "She's probably psychotic, possibly sexually deviant, certainly attention-seeking, and conceivably a secret special agent of the patriarchy. No wonder candidates for surgery have to see so many psychiatrists."

In person, Dru is a softly spoken woman with killer cheekbones and eccentric dress sense. At her book reading in the Winding Stair bookshop, she is by turns coquettish, amusing, gentle and hesitant. Telling the story of her difficult and often painful journey to womanhood requires bravery, not least because she has not been universally accepted.

Indeed, she was awarded £64,862 (€76,276) compensation in 2006, after a tribunal found she was forced to endure "an atmosphere of intimidation and hostility" while she was undergoing gender reassignment while working for P&O Ferries.

The Southampton tribunal found that she was constructively dismissed through having to endure "constant gender-based ribaldry" relating to the gender reassignment, and offensive remarks from other staff members.

It is no wonder, then, that her intelligent eyes glisten with sensitivity, framed by "spinster" glasses.

As the passages describing Richard's experience are read, it becomes clear that the author has also gone on his own complicated journey to acceptance and understanding of Drusilla's situation.

"I want to say I'm sorry," he says. "It must be horrible and tiresome having people look all the time, having me look all the time. Christ, I wouldn't like it, to be looked over so closely by someone like me."

Becoming Drusilla is a remarkable story of friendship, courage and humanity. Achingly funny, bruisingly heart-rending and deeply honest and personal, the story is gracefully and humbly told and free of mawkish sentimentality.

Both Richard and Dru struggle with the new and fragile world they find themselves in. The journey is traced from Dru's early days, through realising that she was born in the wrong body and her subsequent journey to full womanhood.

They still go camping together, notwithstanding prejudice from equipment store owners who insist on calling Dru, "Sir." And Richard worries about what the future will hold for his friend Dru, who is in an intensely complicated and vulnerable position, due to spending the first 43 years of her life as a man.

"I do sometimes worry that Dru will lose her way," he says. "I mean really lose her way. That she'll drop into a life of special-interest groups and Oxfam scavenging, and the occasional indignant letter to the Daily Mail. Or end up a bag lady on a permanent shuttle between ... the Gloucester Road charity shops, too old to jump into skips, her day made or broken by whether there's bottled beer in the house come five past six."

Then again, he concludes, he worries about everyone he loves, and in brighter moments, he sees Dru as an eccentric lady driving around Bristol in her Morris Minor, getting mistaken by people of a certain age for the district nurse.

"The lucky children in her street will know her as the mystery woman with many bangles who will mend a puncture before Mum comes home," he says. "And solve any problems with a bully."

Becoming Drusilla: One Life, Two Friends, Three Genders by Richard Beard (Vintage UK, Random House, €10.40)

- Andrea Smith


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  2. Do you still ride bikes, Dru? That's something I could never give up.

    I've ridden since 1974, and E has ridden since 1998. We're having a gap now becuase of our little one, who's six.


  3. I don't, Chrissie; I gave away the MZ a few years ago (and rather wish I hadn't, but it's too late now). I had a little Honda on loan for a while, and young K loved riding on the back, and it was great fun; but if I had a motorbike then I would always be tempted to use it instead of my bicycle, which is my main form of exercise. I miss that swooping along Welsh mountain roads though...

  4. Thats a lovely write up...

  5. Awww...She got it didn't she?

    "Killer cheekbones" indeed :-) Well you do. But, yup, that's a keeper! :-)

    Meaning to call back soon...promise...just...knackered..

  6. It was a good write-up, wasn't it?

    I have finally resorted to buying Richard's book via mial order, as my attempts to get it in various Waterstones in Wales have come to nowt.

    I had an MZ 250 Saxon Tour for a while. Actually wanted a TS250, which is quite a collectible now. Hope that's not the one you gave away..!!

    I've had dozens over the years. Last two bikes were a BMW K100RS and a Honda 400 Bros.

    E had a Yamaha 535 Virago. I was on the pillion when she did her first ton...!!


  7. It is, Jess. Andrea's a really nice person too.

    Yo, Jo. E-mail on way

    I did have a TS250,Chrissie, which was lovely and my favourite of the MZs. But I sold that one a few years earlier. O well, can't regret something until you've actually done it, can you?

  8. I bet the crankshft on your table was from an MZ... Main bearings?

  9. Though I haven't met you in 'real' life I agree with the cheekbones. It was a lovely write up.

    I never had a bike but when I was very small i remember 'hundreds' of jam jars full of caterpillars on the seats of my dad's Harly Davidsons - I don't remember him riding them or the butterflies that must have evolved.

    May you always be fit enough to jump in (and out of) skips.

  10. MZ bearings indeed, Chrissie...

    Thanks, Anji!

  11. Hey I have been reading this book without realising that you are the same Dru from Bristol with whom I (@vogelbeere) have been connected on Twitter for ages. Well met!

  12. and well met back atcha! -hope you're enjoying the book. Have you found the set of photos of the walk, over on Flickr?