Thursday 27 July 2017

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

Andrea Smith

Andrea Smith

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)

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