Enough for him whom Cherubim
worship night and day
a breast full of milk
and a manger full of hay
and only his mother
in her maiden bliss
worshipped the Beloved
with a kiss
I was lying on the floor of Tate Modern, weeping. In a good way.
On Tuesday 4th I was a day early for the Cezanne exhibition. I could have upgraded my membership to include private views for £40, but instead visited the Tanks. Here is where the fuel for the power station was stored. Now they are cavernous rooms lined with concrete. They have a gorgeous, grungy grandeur. Right now this particular circular room, many decametres across, holds “Enmeshed”, with traditional symbols of indigenous cultures. By the wall to the right of the entrance is Piña, Why is the Sky Blue? I did not look at the caption before asking to try the VR headset- I am a sucker for the things- and after a minute’s wait I was sitting on a large, low beanbag, watching Piña, who is nonbinary. I took in the male nipples, the makeup, the feminine presentation. They swam in 3D towards me and looked into my eyes. They applied foundation. Then I floated through rooms so enlarged that I could have been a fly.
I lay back on the beanbag and wept. I am not used to positive representation, and it was beautiful. It is hard to blow my nose in the headset, but there is a small hole to breathe through and it was just enough.
I handed back the headset and said how moved I was, and the curator told me on the third floor there is further exploration of gender. Here is Nash Glynn’s self-portrait. Not this one, but “Self portrait with one foot forward and one hand reaches out”: naked, she reaches back to us to lead us into the valley towards the rainbow. She is viewed from knee level: above the knees, the background is the sky, with fluffy pink clouds. It is a gorgeous, confident image.
Out of the next room came a couple, a gorgeous tall woman, beautifully got up, and I looked at the bone structure of her face and thought, yeah. Probably. I wish we could acknowledge each other. It is internalised transphobia which prevents us. We are all brave, just for existing, and might encourage each other.
There is a content warning for the video in that room, so I did not watch it. And, there are several examples from Laura Aguilar’s “Clothed/Unclothed” sequence. Nonbinary Luz Calvo, naked, has a sign over their genitals reading “Fuck your gender”.
It was all too much for me. The most important thing in the world for me is to preserve my equanimity. My mother traumatised me into an enmeshed relationship when I was a child. I was not allowed my own thoughts or feelings, only hers. Though she is dead I want to keep my mobile face impassive, and hide my emotions even from myself. So most of the time I stay indoors. I have heard people use the word “dissociated” recently, and worked out what they find remarkable is my default state.
I wandered back to the tube over the Millennium Bridge. I got the idea of a selfie with the dome of St Pauls appearing as a hat. A woman noticed, and offered help, then got her husband to try, but this is one I took myself. Unfortunately with the grey sky the dome is washed out. So I may try again, if I am there in better weather.
Thirty pieces of silver, by Cornelia Parker, is utterly beautiful. I sit on a stool, contemplating it. The wires glitter in the bright light. Some of them are taut, some are loose, where one of the pieces of flattened silver sits on another. Because the wires are so long, when they sway like a pendulum they swing very slowly. They move, gently, in the air currents generated by people walking by. I looked at the narrow passages between them, and thought, how lovely it would be to walk through.
I was almost ready to do this when the Tate worker came in.
-You know, I really want to walk through it.
-Yes, he said. That’s almost like a corridor.
-I can’t do it with you there, I said. You couldn’t go round the corner so I could?
I looked round, and he was, indeed, moving into the next room so he could not see me. In a state of total relaxation I sidled through the beautiful thing, taking care not to touch the wires. Unfortunately, right at the far end a flattened fork got caught in my skirt, and pulled it up. A woman plucked it free.
Then I saw the guard again. He is an artist: he makes sound sculptures. He also does painting. He makes constructions of plywood and other materials, with a speaker inside, and plays electronic music he composes through them. I told him I write poetry. He said literature is an art form anyone can practise: you need no materials beyond memory.
I asked him if he would photograph me dancing through it again. He took my phone. I spent a moment readying myself.
I am centred and collected.
I am just about to move through the sculpture
when he says no, he can’t let me do it. Oi!
Or perhaps, as I am a story-teller, I chatted to the guard for a bit, but got a friend to take the pictures and embellished my desire to walk through into a story of how I actually had. I would hate to get that lovely man into trouble.
Also yesterday, I met a woman who asked me a few questions. I decided to answer rather than deflect. She then told me, in a tone of voice she would use as if it were obvious, as if she expected me to agree, that women do not like men in women’s toilets. She does not like male cleaners in women’s toilets. It’s the cleaning companies trying to reduce costs. She told me about JK Rowling at great length. Women must not be erased. I thought her spectacularly rude, but also impervious to any argument, so I simply let her monologue until we had got where we were going.
The Last Judgment by Michelangelo, on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel, is at first less viscerally scary than other Last Judgments. All the Risen, even the Damned, are portrayed against the blue of the sky. Look more closely, though, and many are terrified. Of these two details, which are damned, and which saved?
After you see Jesus, wounded in feet and side, with his hand raised, saying “Depart from me,” it is clear. Then I see the incomprehension of the Damned. They do not understand. The saved man is fearful. His crotch is weird. Most genitals here are covered. I find Christ condemning deeply disturbing. Could I be on his left hand?
Down below we see the corpses rising and coming to life. One is clearly a skeleton, but the flesh will be added momentarily.
On Jesus’ right, they are helping each other up.
On his left, they are fighting, and tearing each other down.
At the bottom on the left, there are demons, and the first sight of the fires of Hell.
On Jesus’ right, our left, people cling to the Cross. One holds the crown of thorns, almost as if to place it on Jesus’ head.
On his left, they cling to a Doric column, perhaps symbolising ancient learning. It is not enough to be saved.
Here is the whole painting. I am disturbed to note the Melancholiac sits on Christ’s left. All that bare flesh! All that gorgeous musculature!
In Ancient Rome, Cybele was the goddess of trans women.
Here is one of them, from a statue from Imperial Rome. Attis was her lover: she tore off his genitals.
Cybele was originally an Anatolian goddess, the Great Mother, whose statue was brought to Rome as the Sibyl prophesied that when she came, Hannibal would be driven out. He left Italy the following year. When Atalanta and Hipponemes made love in her temple, Cybele turned them into lions and yoked them to her chariot.
Robert Graves, in The Greek Myths, reports Cybele’s devotees sought ecstatic unity with her by removing their testicles and dressing like women. She had temples at Tyre, Joppa, Hierapolis and Jerusalem. He cites 1 Kings 15:12, where Asa “put the male temple prostitutes out of the land” in the early ninth century BCE. We came back: Josiah, in the seventh century (2 Kings 23:7) had to do it again. Graves also reports Artemis of the Ephesians, in Acts 19:35, was Cybele. I disagree. We say Venus is Aphrodite, as the Roman Goddess took on the characteristics and stories of the Greek, but goddesses with trans priestesses across the ancient world might still be separate traditions. There are trans people everywhere.
Cybele’s priestesses were known as Galli from Galatia, in the central highlands of Anatolia, modern Turkey. Three centuries before Christ 20,000 migrants from Gaul went there to hide in the mountains and raid the plains. So she might equally well have come from north-west Europe.
Some gay apologists argue that when Paul condemns “Malakoi”, soft men, in 1 Corinthians 6:9, which in English translation is used to condemn gay sex, he really meant priestesses of Cybele. Thank you so much, guys. But in Galatians 3, Paul wrote, “There is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus”. That’s the answer to “Male and female God created them” in Genesis, often used to curse trans women. Paul writes to a region where there is a cult of trans women, saying there is no longer male or female for all are one. That seems as strong acceptance as we could get from him.
Louis XIV disapproved of her. In the Salon de Venus at Versailles, there is a painting of Saturn removing Cybele, who is powerless against him, and in the Queen’s antechamber the goddess of combat burns her face. But in the gallery of Apollo in the Louvre, there is the Triumph of Cybele.
Spring and the West Wind crowning her. The West Wind, or Zephyr’s, arms are so masculine, the face and hair so feminine.
Rubens painted her as the personification of the element of Earth, here uniting with Water.
Jan Brueghel the Elder, Cybele receiving gifts from the four seasons, is completely gorgeous.
Here is Luca Giordano:
I was normal, most of the time. The dress hung in my box room unworn, a reminder of my weirdness. I could put it behind me, I did not need it any more, so I threw it away. Then I met a woman through a dating small-ad, who would tolerate me cross-dressing, and I got another dress, to travel a hundred miles to meet her. I never wanted to meet her again, but I did want to meet others, so I got a wig and joined the Northern Concord.
If I was not ashamed enough of myself, plenty of people were willing to remind me. I went to the concert hall, as I thought if I were to do this I had to go out among the straights, and the moment I stepped off Canal St onto Princess St someone roared out “It’s a fucking bloke”. Sir Cyril James Anderton, CBE KStJ QPM DL, had been Chief Constable quite recently, and a friend was stopped by the police as she drove home, in her street. They kept their blue lights flashing, in case anyone was asleep, and had not looked out to see what was going on. The morality police imagine they are the good people, and my problem after my upbringing and aversion therapy was, I agreed with them.
Writing for The Friend and The Friends Quarterly is too narrow. One way to break into being paid for occasional pieces might be to write for TransLiving International, which is in a magazine shop locally. It also does not pay, but I might produce articles I could show to the editor of Diva or Pink News. I looked at it, and could not bring myself to buy it. I found it unbearable. It seems mostly photos, more drag than trans. I still want to be normal.
I am allowed to be weird, but only in particular well-bounded places where the weirdness may be exaggerated. I want my weirdness integrated. I am not a whole person with a weird part let rip then suppressed. It is the same with male submission: a gothic weirdness is separated out, rather than part of ordinary life.
On the train, the ticket inspector called me “Sir”. I have complained to the railway.
After Meeting, and lunch with Friends, I went to Tate Modern. I love the Leonora Carrington self-portrait, not out of copyright: she was twenty.
I want art to enclose me, enfold me, and in the Turbine Hall there is Adventure Play.
On a previous day children were encouraged to decorate the place with strips of cloth and pens, and now they are encouraged to take wood, saw it to the size they want, and nail it in place. The “House” has narrow corridors and a doorway fitted to a six-year old. I fold myself up to go through. This is art I can touch.
Then Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Mirror Rooms. K complained to me that only members could get tickets, but it is an unsatisfying experience. I queued fifteen minutes to spend two minutes in each room. “How did you find it?” I asked the young couple behind. She had her eight-week-old son in a sling on her front. “Underwhelming,” she said. They live a few minutes’ walk away, along the river. My grandmother’s dressing table mirror had wings so that you could see yourself from the side, and if aligned, see multiple versions stretching out into the distance. The rooms are black, and filled with light. An unselfconscious heart finds them fabulous, but I was not quite that. Kusama lives in a mental hospital. On the walls are photos of the old lady, weird among the normies, using a golf-umbrella as a parasol.
Before the second, we are warned “Don’t fall in the water”, several times, by the curator. It must be an awful job, shepherding passive-aggressive art lovers into a room for only two minutes, with so many to get through before the next quarter hour and the next lot come in. “Oh no, someone’s fallen in the water,” she says, like a resentful nanny with a stupid child. She tears off some tissue to go and dry off the path. “If you get disorientated, look at the ceiling or the floor” she warns, in case someone sues, perhaps. On the wall I read Yayoi: “Our earth is only one polka dot among a million stars in the cosmos. Polka dots are a way to infinity. When we obliterate nature and our bodies with polka dots, we become part of the unity of our environment.”
I did not fall in, but bent to ripple the water with my fingers. A wave machine making the lights move would be good.
The Tate won the privacy action this flat block’s management brought against it, but the 10th floor viewing platform is still not open. This meditating woman is not looking into the flats either.
I walk slowly over the level four bridge. There is the sound of hammering from below. On the South Bank, with no wind in the beautiful Spring sunshine, a busker plays soaring melodies on a guitar with a backing-track. I weep with the beauty of it. I feel so alone.
Every word of my affirmation is fought for.
I am Abigail, the name I chose. Someone else said, “gentle, vibrant light” and I thought that is too beautiful to leave out. You might think it obvious that I am a human being, but I am asserting my uniqueness, beauty and wonder as a human being, and also that I am one in 7.9 billion. I am a woman, despite denials, and feminine. I denied it too. I said on facebook it made no sense to say I was not “biologically” a woman, unless you believe in a soul separate from the body, and was roundly mocked for this. Yet I am a woman.
I thought I was worthless for so long, but I have value. I have desires, chiefly about safety, social contact and the regard of others. Activity is a means to those ends. I have agency: I can take action, and I do. I have willpower, or determination, when I decide to do something. Dignity, I read, means being worthy of honour or respect, and that is a leap of faith I will make.
I cycled 36 miles, which is as much as I want to do in a day, and don’t want to do two days running. So, while I like the idea of cycle touring, I don’t really see myself doing it. I thought of cycling daily, and just did not. It’s the difference between liking an idea of myself, and wanting the reality. Or, it’s wanting the reality and not having an idea how to get there. Or just not doing the work.
I want sexual surrender, and a friend suggested I needed more long term planning- not just the immediate delight, but the possibility of partnership. Are they a catch?
Taking my bike on the train, I went to visit the artist, who showed me their studio. Their Greek characters are sculptures and prints. I love the Helen of Troy, oozing sex and death. The Heracles is a killer. I was introduced to the stories as a child, and these are an adult reappraisal.
Coming back on the train, I started a conversation with a woman from the headline on her Guardian. She is a Quaker, who is just writing pastoral guidance for her meeting on trans people, whose meeting has been called transphobic. I told her of my experiences. I hope she would not see me as a threat.
A writer on dementia wrote of the need for a sense of self. A woman in a nursing home was disrupting the nursing station, until they found she was a former nurse. So they let her sit there, even write fake notes, and she became happier. I don’t take pride in having been a lawyer, and my sense of self comes from what I have found out about myself. My vulnerable, inconsistent pride comes from being this particular human.
I want to add good qualities to my affirmation. I have many gifts, and the ones I value are these:
I wish I had more outlet for these qualities. It seems a desire to be not to seem. I am this person, and I have so much doubt and fear. So I go back to the affirmation Menis Yousry crafted with me, and what I did with it. Someone called my words “honest, astute and brave,” and I treasure such affirmation.
Image from Wikimedia. Godward was painting for men. Those young women, probably shallow and dissatisfied, are a caricature beside Evelyn Blacklock’s self portrait. This is a real person, confidently and openly looking out at us.
Here’s John William Godward, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder”, from 1912. I have been sharing his work: solitary, pensive young women under blue Mediterranean skies, usually dressed the same way: a long crinkled dress with that slashed sleeve detail, a contrasting strip of cloth tied around the hips, a girdle below the bust. The hair may be tied, as here, or loose. When visible, feet are bare or in sandals. There is always a marble wall or bench, and flowers, and sometimes trees, the sea, a statue, a cat, a letter, an aqueduct, furs…
Here is a variation of dress.
I love the colours of the clothes. Mondrian would paint quadrilaterals in an irregular grid, Godward wraps and dresses.
You might think him Pre-Raphaelite, but Wikipedia tells me he was a protege of Lawrence Alma-Tadema. There is a story that he wrote in his suicide note, “The world is not big enough for myself and a Picasso”. I love them. I love the care lavished on them, the veins in the marble, the drape of the cloth. I love the beauty of the surroundings, and imagine myself as the women reclining there. I have a few more to share, and will continue including them, in order of date of creation, in my posts, because I find them beautiful.
In honour of Ukraine, here is Ukrainian artist Marie Bashkirtseff, 1858-1884. She came from Poltava, where the Ukrainian military has intercepted a Russian missile.
One could see the boy in the cap as Putin.
I love this girl’s presence and openness.
In the Studio, in Paris. In England women painting was seen as immoral.
Spring. Bashkirtseff died of TB, aged 25.
Many Nativity paintings have an air of stillness and peace. This one, by Jan Wydra,
makes me think of light and movement. The light source is not the Christ-child, but the sun. If Jesus is lifting his hands in blessing, he is older than a week or two, but rather Mary has lifted his arm like a mother looking at her newborn in amazed delight and love- and playing with him, not just contemplating. Joseph could be looking out worriedly for Herod’s soldiers.
There’s the same movement in Christ and City.