Radiant Shame: the performance of femininity, with Rhyannon Styles

Rhyannon Styles is a performance artist, writer and public speaker. She is known for her transgender activism and her column for Elle magazine. Her memoir, The New Girl, is out now. She performs internationally, most recently in Dr Carnesky’s Incredible Bleeding Woman at The Soho Theatre.

Soma Ghosh is a writer and cabaret performer.  She is Editor of The Demented Goddess.

Soma: I fell in love with your work at Kashpoint. You were birthing a huge white balloon, around 2004. I found you again a couple of years later at Cirque club in Soho and that’s when we met. You had an act, ‘Suicide Blonde’, very funny and horrific. It had a pathos to it, connected, for me, to the Magdalene figure discussed in this month’s issue.

Your soundtrack was the INXS song by Paula Yates’ dead lover Michael Hutchence. Paula herself, very blonde, very femme, died of an overdose. I had a childhood memory of a vivacious woman interviewing rock stars on a bed and thinking, ‘that’s wonderful but it won’t last.’ At a very early age, I had a notion that I could never be that forward and feminine, without being shut down. How did this feel to you, when you were growing up?

Rhyannon: I grew up in Staffordshire, in a working class, rural village. I knew from a young age that, because I was born male and attracted to men, this was a bad thing. I was shut down because people weren’t ‘down with’ homosexuality. My parents divorced when I was 5 so, that was really tricky to work through. ‘Suicide Blonde’ was quite literal. I created different performances of suicide.

Soma: Your ‘Suicide Blonde’ act was potent for me, because being femme, seeking male attention, pulls women into pieces. I was first called a slut by my father, at 14. I was hurt but also, somehow, exhilarated. Patriarchal society has thrown out Magdalene’s gospel from the Bible yet Jesus’ mother and his best friend, a sex worker,  stood by him, to the end. No matter how much society tries to separate the ‘good’  woman and the slut, there will always be artists, mystics, people who want to transcend the Madonna-slut opposition. How do you see it, in terms of your sexuality? To me, you’ve always been the most exquisite, feminine person in Soho.

Rhyannon: It’s nice that you’ve witnessed my life in different forms – and performance being absolutely central to that.

Sex is a weird topic because I don’t feel like a sexual person. As a result of the shaming I went through as a child, I had to cover up that I was attracted to masculine people by having girlfriends. For a long time in my 20s, I was single. Despite discovering the centre of the world – Soho, Heaven nightclub and so on – I couldn’t access it. I was still reeling from my sexuality being villified as a child and couldn’t engage with people. I felt so unwanted. To make myself needed, I performed, did drag. But ultimately, that drove a wedge between who I was and what people perceived. People presumed I was this outrageous person – but that was a mask, behind which I was dealing with inferiority and abandonment complexes.

So, it’s interesting you say I’m this exquisite woman because when I look in the mirror, that’s not what I see. But now, in Dr. Carnesky’s Incredible Bleeding Woman and in my own work, I’ve started to access nudity within my practice as an artist. Before I transitioned, I doubt I would have confronted it.

But I still don’t feel the sexual energy you feel… How does one ‘become’ sexual when you’re unable to be sexual?

“How does one ‘become’ sexual when you’re unable to ‘be’ sexual?” Photo, Jen Endom.

As a male body, when you take female hormones which kill your testosterone, your libido gets completely erased. It’s very strange being in the same body – a slightly different body – but not having those impulses because they’ve been biologically removed.

It’s strange to ‘give off’ sexiness – to project it – when in your core, there’s nothing there. You start thinking, what are the drives to have sex, be sexual, what is it you want others to see?   Now I experience the male gaze in a way I never experienced it before. If I go out wearing a top revealing my breasts then I get what women say about men staring at our breasts. I’ve learnt – I’ve experienced – how women are objectified. But it’s still weird for me… there’s a layer… a distance between what I perceive myself to look like and what I look like. I still have this vision, when I look in the mirror, of being a man. It’s a very strange loop I’m in. There are things that don’t fit with perhaps how I see femininity. There’s a lot of acceptance required because, what is femininity? What is the female sex?

Soma: I’m guessing a lot of women relate to this feeling of performing femininity and sexiness. Performing femininity is key to the Madonna-Whore complex. We respond to how society views us, making ourselves pretty and appealing. For a lot of women who ovulate, that’s the only time when they are roaring for sex. At The Demented Goddess, we feature many artists who are sex-positive but I also sometimes think this sex-positivity… what would it be like to let go of it altogether, live without it?

Rhyannon: Yeah, I know if I appear pretty and appealing and pleasing and wear make-up – and I like doing that, I’m femme, I’m not wearing a mask – I can walk through the world with more ease. People are more accepting. In those early days of transitioning, 2012-14, I was in an ambiguous area and that was difficult. I had issues because people like to categorise others. Now I can perform sexy but on my own terms. If I want to femme up and wear a dress and heels to a party, it feels less contrived. But also, as you say, if we let go of that, I’m sure it would be a lot easier.

Soma: Hmm, I find ‘owning’ extreme femininity and being an incitement to the male gaze…

Rhyannon: It’s difficult.

Soma: Yeah. I write about music and go gigging. I have a little boy so I have to leave him with my lover and I’m often on my own. Artists of both sexes feel comfortable with me. I get into spaces and am told things male journalists in big jumpers probably are not. I’m pretty sure I’d feel a little less confident doing that if I wasn’t femming up – and it’s a lovely archetype, an enjoyable way to be.

Rhyannon: I talk about this particular moment, when I was 14, in my book The New Girl. I saw Madonna in a video for her song, ‘Beautiful Stranger’ and something just clicked. I looked at her and I thought, “I want to be that. I am that and I need to make the steps to be that.” Madonna, at that point, was an archetype for me. Although I still don’t know what ‘that’ is. It’s possibly attention, fame, glamour and all the trappings that go with that.

“I still don’t know what ‘that’ is…possibly attention, fame, glamour.” Photo: Jen Endom

Soma: And yet, shame dogs this archetype. You’ve mentioned this long-standing, childhood feeling of shame. Do you still have anxieties about self-esteem, despite appearing, to many, as the radiant epitome of a trans woman?

Rhyannon: All the time, from the moment I get up! I talk about shame a lot in The New Girl because people might view me as a trans woman in the media, who had a column in Elle, pushing for transgender rights and visibility. And I want to use my platform to do that. But I also want to talk about how I navigate the shit I face, every day. That’s what my next book is about, addiction and trauma through a trans lens. Being shamed at such an early age – if anyone is shamed at such an early age, it causes huge problems.

This is something I realised in my mid-20s, when drink, drugs and other behaviors, like sex and food got out of control because I was looking for substitutes for love. I think a lot of people have these issues, if you were abandoned or your needs were not met. It’s important to talk more, because silence, for anyone who’s suffering, is death. I was initially cautious to reveal my life in print but now I see it’s integral to being real. Talking about it is integral to my being. It’s unavoidable.

Soma: It’s so powerful to see you naked, on stage, in Dr. Carnesky’s Incredible Bleeding Woman. Yours is a figure that people otherwise don’t see. They fantasise or fetishise. In a film on the history of Manchester queer raving, from this summer, Fleshback, I was saddened to see a gorgeous trans dancer I recognised from the clubbing scene I love talk about a man fucking his shame into her.

Rhyannon: I totally relate to that. Similar situations have happened to me, where I’ve been tokenised, fetishised and disregarded, all in the same night. That’s very difficult for anyone, trans or otherwise. But there have been other times when I’ve been celebrated, cherished and had a real connection. There’s a duality at play, when people are attracted to each other.

Speaking in ‘Dr. Carnesky’s…’ of her challenge by a doctor to prove she is feminine because she didn’t wear a dress to his clinic. Photo: Rod Penn

Soma: For me personally, interesting encounters are about intimacy, it doesn’t really matter what happens, sexually…

Rhyannon: Yes.

Soma: Even now, I get hurt, when the penny drops, when I’m being open with a ‘beautiful stranger’ – I’m surprised every time that I realise someone’s been using me, emotionally, say; that feeling that I’m disposable.  I guess I’m still learning.

Rhyannon: You never know who’s going to be in a nightclub.   It takes time to know who another person might be, whether they’re spinning you a line, especially when we add drink to the situation. It’s a double-edged sword. Clubs can be a place to be celebrated and seen as exquisite and exotic. But there’s the other side. You’re used for sex, for somebody exploring their sexuality, as opposed to really wanting to be with you. It wasn’t what you thought: there’s been a transaction, of sorts.

Rhyannon Styles, The New Girl: A Trans Girl Tells It How It Is: out now.

Twitter: @rhyannonstyles

Main photo: Jen Endom.

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