So, why did I pick up this book? Well three reasons…
The first was I was in an airport and airport bookshops have a magnetic pull on me. In fact, they are very good at having me spend all my holiday money before every getting anywhere. Last Friday I headed to Berlin for the 25th anniversary of the fall of the wall and the 21st anniversary of my littlest sister’s birth – so I needed something to read on the plane obviously… Well erm, I bought four books. I then bought three more there and one in the airport on the way book. This one however, was the only one I cracked open. And I couldn’t put it down – despite all the lovely floaty Berlin lights, and Mrs. Merkley spotting and Glühweins. So, here we are. my dears. A book review.
The second reason is this is a trends blog and Panti is ‘hashtag’ totally trending. It’s impossible not to be interested in Rory’s alter ego. She’s been all over ‘the Twitter’ and ‘the YouTube’ with her Noble Call speech in the Abbey. She’s reached beyond the Dublin gay scene into the living rooms of your Irish mammy as the ‘accidental’ activist. Hell – she’s reached beyond our shores to become a global symbol for gay oppression the world over. With the marriage referendum looming in 2015, and given how confusing and botched these things tend to be in our country, self education is an important endeavour. After all, lets face it, our traditional media giants and the powers that be don’t exactly have a great track record of supplying all the info one needs… So, I wanted to know more.
Not because I didn’t know what way I’d be voting, but because I lacked the vocabulary and the constructive arguments to perhaps change other people’s vote too. To me, this referendum is not ‘just’ about the rights of gays to have their relationships legitimised to the same extent of “any idiot, murderer, racist or child molester” – although that’s obviously that’s the core reason to get out and vote. But I think this referendum is also a rare chance for the Irish people, the real Irish people – not the Irish people represented in mainstream media, that I feel consistently detached, uncomfortable, embarrassed about, infuriated with – to say: “This is who we really are, world. Don’t listen to any of the rubbish you might of heard! We’ve progressed. We are progressing. And it’s not just because we have iPhones and Netflix and see The Walking Dead right after you. We think differently now. In fact, we think for ourselves. Whether it’s politics or business or food or running the banks, or art or fashion or even religion, we can think for ourselves (thank you very much) and from now on, you are going to hear what we think!” So yeah I guess (I hope) if the referendum marks an important turning point for Ireland, reading the ‘course material’ seems like an obvious part of getting involved in that.
Finally however, I was curious. Curious about a world I had very little knowledge of and a human experience I thought I knew nothing about. The gay world to me is like Russia – a subject I knew very little about beyond a few short stories here and there. As someone who is really interested in identities and how we construct them, transvestism (I hate the word, it’s whatever the opposite of a onomatopoeia is) was something that interested me. It seems like the ultimate in self construction, in re-invention, in expressing dual parts to a personality.
Rory’s story is one of the evolution of identity – personal and national. His love for Ireland, for his country and for the small town he grew up in is almost motherly, yet – just like an Irish mammy – cuttingly honest in his observations of our flaws. Rory gives all the credit to Panti and she it seems that she’s always had a number of talents – to read her audience, keep their attention and put on a great show, but I think it is Rory who decides she is fearless. Either way, it turns out all those talents have worked just as well on the page as they have on stage.
I did discover one thing though that I wasn’t expecting. I was expecting to be told, ‘the gays’ are just like everybody else. That they’re just like me, they just happen to be attracted to the same sex. But that’s simply not true. Because they are – as I discovered – very different indeed. In fact, every openly gay person on this craggy island is utterly, totally different from me.
Because they are brave.
I have had the unfortunate curse of being a painfully straight older child in bloody marketing (OK the marketing thing was self inflicted) with very little going on in terms of the extraordinary and God, would I just LOVE to be as brave as Panti. To experiment more with how represent myself – maybe give into (as another famous transvestite Grayson Perry calls it) “some of my more tackier inclinations“. To say ‘yes’ to absolutely bloody everything. To not be afraid of what my friends would say, my mother, the randomer in the street I’ll never see again. Hell, I’m a giant nerd since birth and despite this being my moment to shine, even the ever painfully self-conscious hipsters do ‘nerd’ than me! Rory’s book taught me one simple, important lesson – not to be so fucking afraid all the time.
And it showed me that every other gay person is braver than me too.
Because they have stood up against the grey flow of marching straight muggles and said ‘No, this ain’t me.’ They’ve put the sorting hat on and demanded to be in Gryffindor! And I think that big leap of brave, sneaks so many other magical things into our world . For so many trends and new ideas, gays bravely march to where the rest of us only timidly and eventually sometimes follow. The rest of us just aren’t used to dealing in so much brave. Well obviously I can’t judge from my far off chair over at Hufflepuff and it’s certainly such generalisations are not always true of either table but it certainly seems true for Rory and Panti and it seems true from my own limited second hand observations.
The book showed me how brave the gay community have been and continued to be. It really drove home how important it is after all that ‘being brave’ – standing alone out by themselves – the rest of us need to show are support.
In a really really weird way, Woman in the Making actually reminded me so much of Watchmen and lots of modern superhero stories. Yes, there’s the obvious ‘costume’, the wonder woman hair, and the alter ego thing going on but there’s some other stuff too. Like how that alter ego (for example, Batman) in a lot of ways become more real than the ‘real’ self (no, I can’t even remember his name but that’s sort of the point). Or how superheroes see the cracks in society – see something others don’t – the world for what it is and decide to do something about it – to ultimately protect it from itself. And also, the weird way in which superheroes don’t actively go out to become heroes, they just sort of find themselves there and are further elevated (and attacked) by society. Just as V (for Vendetta) was a symbol – something that moved beyond the mere fictional individual into a fictional movement and now, a very real (though very very different political group) – so to is Panti. Because Panti is essentially symbolic in her ‘gender combobulation’ and construction, she’s a ‘ready made’ symbol for us to adopt – gay and muggle alike. Or a symbol that appears ‘ready made’ at any rate… although in reality was anything but.
I opened this book to gain a better understanding of the gay world, but actually, I discovered something knew about myself and about the human condition in general. As V/Alan Moore says:
“Artists use lies to tell the truth. Yes, I created a lie. But because you believed it, you found something true about yourself.”
Panti is a hero in the truest and rarest way. And as for being a symbol thing? Well, I’d rather be represented by a sparkly potty-mouthed Panti than a silent raggy Kathleen Ni Houlihan any day.