I’ve had a massive crush on Shirley Manson for more than 20 years.
To be honest, I’m suspicious of anybody who doesn’t have a massive crush on Shirley Manson. Fierce, funny, impossibly talented, Scottish, ginger and drop-dead gorgeous, the Garbage singer is one of rock’s great personalities, and the way she rocked her combination of cute dress, black tights, clumpy boots and fuck-you attitude did all kinds of things to me back in the day. She’s just as amazing now, and I’m absolutely convinced that if I were to meet her I’d be incapable of speech.
There’s a saying about rock stars that the fans of your own gender want to be you and the ones of the other gender want to be with you. With Manson I always felt both: if I could have magically transformed myself into somebody else it would have been Shirley every time. Especially Shirley in the Only Happy When It Rains video.
I still feel like that today. When I discovered by accident that I had bought a dress very similar to one Shirley wore recently, I damn near exploded with delight.
I think that’s something she’d approve of. She’s long spoken out on behalf of the outsiders, the “queerest of the queer”, and it’s a recurring motif in her music. The first time I saw the Androgyny video – Manson blurring gender roles while singing “boys in the girl’s room, girls in the men’s room, you free your mind with your androgyny”, her lascivious, lusty “boyyyyyyys” and “girrrrrrrrls” punctuating the chorus – I had to have smelling salts and a lie down.
I never tried to be Shirley Manson in real life. The look and the attitude were for my imagination, not my everyday: androgyny wasn’t the kind of thing you could get away with in my town, and I’d never pass as a woman.
In an excellent article for Allure magazine, Katelyn Burns writes about the impossible standards to which trans women hold themselves.
Before I transitioned, I had a very palpable sense of the “too”: I was too tall, too fat, too bald to ever be a “real” woman, so what would be the point of even trying to transition? It’s a common sentiment among trans woman and a direct result of the impossibly narrow box within which society confines women’s appearances. For many trans women, male puberty puts cisnormative beauty permanently out of reach; for others, the idea that the world could see them the same way that they see themselves is the stuff of fantasy.
And that’s a great shame, because that fear holds us back from being ourselves, from experiencing the world as it should be.
This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot of late because I’m still in the transitioning trenches, trying to work out my identity and how I want to exist in the world. The judging Katelyn writes about makes me feel pretty crappy quite a lot of the time, but sometimes the heavens align and I feel pretty damn good about myself.
It happened the other night. I was going to see an avowedly trans-inclusive punk rock band, so instead of my more usual androgyny I decided to let my inner Garbage fan come out. I chose a dress I really, really love, teamed it with thick black tights, got my make-up just right and spent a bit of time sorting my hair out. And I looked bloody amazing.
I’m under no illusions about what I look like: I’m very tall, very big, overweight. But when my presentation gets close to looking like the person I want to be, there’s a joy I find really hard to describe, a feeling that everything has magically clicked into place.
And sometimes other people validate that. I’ve been chatted up by strangers at gigs, complimented by women in bars, received throwaway comments that have kept me walking on air for days. Before I went to my punk gig, I popped into my local to see some friendly faces: I might have felt amazing, but the prospect of going into town wearing a dress for the very first time was still frightening, not least because I was going to meet a friend who had never seen me presenting as Carrie before. So I needed to do it in stages: go to a familiar place first, and then go on into town when the fear had subsided a bit.
I’m glad I did, because when I walked in one of my women friends was there. “You look really pretty!” she said, grinning delightedly before adding “Is it okay for me to say that?” When I reassured her that not only was it okay, but it’d be even more okay if she could just say it a few hundred more times and maybe put it in writing too, she laughed and told me that “seriously, you look really hot”.
Before I came out I never dreamed I would ever be told I was pretty, let alone hot. One of the great sadnesses of not coming out until later in life is that you’re stuck with a body that’s developed in all the wrong ways. But while I’ll never be mistaken for a pretty young anything that doesn’t mean I can’t be proudly, unapologetically, confidently me. Whoever you are, whatever you identify as, being true to yourself is pretty damn hot.
I’m going to see Garbage on tour later this year. I’ll be the one dancing really badly in a cute dress.