This is an interview with the trans performance artist Pia, published in Trespass magazine, issue two (2008).
When did you realise you were gender-gifted?
From a very early age. When you go to school it becomes more apparent, because you grow up with your mother, and you see a lot more of your mother than you do of your father, so gender doesn’t matter – you’re just a little tiny child. But when you go to school it’s clear you’re intrinsically different – and not in an understandable way.
I was in a ring of children at playgroup and the teacher was asking everyone what they wanted to do when they grew up. Everyone said “train driver” or “hairdresser” until she came to a little boy called Trevor who said he wanted to be a nurse. The children rounded on him, angrily, purely because of their education about what boys can’t do and girls can’t do. So I just said, “train driver”.
You’re allowed to dress up as children – I wanted to dress as a girl. But dressing up box stopped for me, unless I wanted to be a cowboy – I wasn’t allowed anything else. Which wasn’t fair: I couldn’t express myself through the clearest means – clothing.
What did your gender transition involve?
The last 25 years of my life, getting to the point where I started transitioning. Actually transitioning caused a lot of pain. It was a trial by fire. I lost money, security and many friends. Even when they know you’re trans, the decision to become more female than male is often difficult for someone you meet with career and relationship goals.
Some people were fine, but initially others were hostile because I was doing something that made everything else seem a bit inane. That profound commitment to transitioning – people don’t understand how gender is such a fundamental part of you, because they’ve never questioned it. I hate it when people refer to being a ‘tranny’ as a ‘hobby’ – you don’t live and die by hobbies. You need belief that you’ll survive – being into model trains isn’t quite the same.
Is gender transition a continuous process?
It’s a spiritual path – I find it’s continually growing. You’re learning more about yourself, having been censored for a very long time. You start to express yourself more – whereas you’ve been constantly tailoring your persona, you become free to let go and find your place between feminine and masculine values, which, within people’s social conditioning, can be very confusing.
That’s why transgender people have such a negative press. We make people question their own gender and sexuality because we intrinsically confront them about it. People ask themselves if they’re gay if they fancy a transsexual – no, because gay men fancy men and lesbians fancy women. We are in the LGBT community, which is great, because we all face the same fears, which is coming out and telling everyone your darkest secret, which is “I am this.”
People are castrated – punished – for what they are. Transitioning demands willingness to throw oneself off a mountain. You have to come out and say, “This is me” and if you accept me, great, but if you don’t, so be it. That’s what I find is upsetting when people think we like Barbie dolls, conforming to negative feminine stereotypes – I’m like Barbie, but with a knife.
What do you think causes your gender identity?
I think you’re born with it. I don’t think you become transgender – I think you are. You can hide it. There are lots of trans people in the closet, denying themselves expression in preference of the Other – a straight, normal life. You can have a straight, normal life if you’re gay, bi, trans or whatever, but stepping out of that 2.4 children construct is intimidating, and I don’t know if there is a cause. Maybe it’s a water system overloaded with oestrogen.
Throughout history there have always been trans people and they’ve always been revered, from the Native Americans to the Greeks and Romans, especially the Pagans, who had a lot of belief systems based on nature. In nature, there are hermaphrodites everywhere – in frogs, for example. If there are too many male frogs they’ll turn into females and vice versa. I think the cause is natural – it’s not a choice, and you can choose whether to hide it or be proud of it.
Who are your inspirations (trans or otherwise)?
Social mavericks: people willing to disenfranchise themselves for their beliefs. People with unshakeable beliefs with a good grounding: not in religion but in their vision of reality. If you prove one thing that isn’t in the textbook, that disproves the textbook – and I think that’s the essence of transgenderism.
I admire Nikola Tesla, because he, not Edison, is the father of modern electricity. Viktor Schauberger, for his theories about dynamics. Wilhelm Reich, who hypothesised that the constriction of your sexual identity and self-expression was harmful to the human spirit.
Trans people – April Ashley for her remarkable story, her strength of character and her will, as well as the Paris is Burning girls from New York.
How has being TG influenced you creatively?
The Seventies pioneers – Warhol superstars like Candy Darling – inspired me but as a child I didn’t know them. So my creativity came from exploring gender came from within physicality. I like creativity with a message. Some art I don’t see the point in. Duchamp’s urinal, for example – I understand the concept, but it needs to be seen in context, and contextualising is what I’m about.
How would you describe your performances?
It’s very fierce, very provocative, quite incendiary – like some bitch with tits and a cock on napalm. I’m quite humble as well, but when I’m on stage I’m on fire, and I make a formidable adversary if I’m dancing with someone. I draw on the energy of the changing seasons and the precession. My cause is for the freedom of people, particularly transgender people, to express themselves. I think it’s important that people are allowed to express themselves from childhood to adulthood without being made to feel guilty. I try to have a child-like state of belief when performing – I feel like I’m becoming an adult, the adult I wanted to be when I left puberty – I draw strength from being proud of what I am, whereas before I wasn’t.
I do a flag dance, which is called Declare Independence. I come on stage and people think I’m a girl. I have flags representing conflict facing each other – China and Tibet, America and Cuba, the gay flag opposite the Saudi flag, the cross and the arrow symbolising male and female, and on my dress I wear ‘Jesus Loves You’. As a cape I wear the Jolly Roger. I strip the flags down while dancing vigorously. I lose the flags – eventually I’m left with the Jolly Roger, which symbolises independence from everything, especially the prescribed notion of the masses, and then Jesus Loves You, which symbolises so much, including the Solstice. Then I drop that and I’m naked, and the illusion that I am a woman – and an angry woman at that – collapses, and I’m declaring independence from everything.
I do another show to O Superman by Laurie Anderson. I come on as a bastardised Clark Kent, and wear a rubber fuck-doll face mask, and I slowly strip in a nasty, Friday 13th fashion. When I shed the Clark Kent suit, you see I’m Superman, and then I take off the Superman suit and I’m a muscleman. As I remove that you see I’m a woman, but between that and my skin there’s a thick layer of fake blood, as though I’m being flayed or peeling off the exterior to reveal the inner heart of Superman. As I peel the chest down, people don’t see my breasts and with my mask they don’t see my face – when I had my suit on they thought I was a male stripper. Then I peel off my bottom half at the end to once again confuse the issue – first they thought I was a man, then a woman, then I’m trans. Maybe that’s why Superman is so wholesome – because he’s got a trans heart.
I did things at Glastonbury this year with NYC Downlow, including building a gay bar with my friend Gideon, as well as Horse Meat Disco and Jonny Woo.
In your mind, what is a man and what is a woman, and where do you fit in?
Well, men generally have a cock and women generally have a vagina. Along the spectrum of sexuality there are so many different permutations, with intersex in the middle. All of light together is white – male – and all absence of light is black – female, represented by Cybele, the Greek deification of the Earth Mother – and between there is a rainbow.
I think people would fit an explanation of gender more comfortably if society allowed wider variation. In Native American culture, if a little girl wanted to go and hunt she could. Society is much more accepting of tomboys – if a man wants to be nurturing, it’s seen as weakness. Recently we’ve had the New Man, Nineties Man and Noughties Man. People aren’t allowed to fully express themselves yet – but that will change. Here, we’re twenty years behind New York and San Francisco.
In the future, we’ll start a more female age. We live on a female planet – they have more of a connection with it, because they create, they have a womb. I’m in awe of that. That doesn’t make me, or men, any less. At the moment it appears the patriarchal phase is ending and the matriarchal phase is beginning, which is crucial – if it doesn’t, the planet won’t survive.