Saturday, 26 March 2011

Of freaks and a better society

Alex used to be a long-time, well-known and inspirational blogger, who, after a gap, is blogging again, and with a media presence too. I'm delighted to discover this. See her blog A Journey With Alex (

Her latest 14 March post is entitled When Does The Freak Show End? and is mainly about the complications that arise where there are children, and to what extent the transitioned parent (Alex herself, for instance) needs to accept access terms insisted on by the other parent. Alex has put her children first, and, not without reservations, has abided by those terms. But they arguably sustain the notion that trans people are freaks not fit to be seen. And yet insisting on more open, less secretive, access might lead to upsets and consequences that could make the children unhappy. What a dilemma for any trans parent.

I'd say though that in time it will all get easier. And, if you consider the past plight of other groups once regarded as freaks, and how they have all now moved forward into a better public situation, there really is hope.

Take the blind, for instance. Yesterday I was in a shop in the village and saw the proprietor gently and caringly help a blind man into the shop - there were steps and other obstacles - and then later out again, personally seeing him safely to the pavement on the main road through the village. All at a pace that the blind man could cope with. I was impressed.

How different from the way blind people were treated when I was young in the 1950s and 1960s. They were not shown compassion and patience then. They were in the way, a problem. Nothing was made simple or easy for them. They were not allowed dignity. They often looked odd, dressed anyhow, because the clothes then were complicated and hard to adjust. A man might have buttons in the wrong holes, a tie askew, flies not properly done up, a brown check jacket with blue check trousers, odd socks, and black shoes not well laced. Hair all over the place. Not properly shaved. Not so if there was still a loving wife to see to these things; but all too many single or widowed men looked strange, like tramps, and were figures of fun to kids, who guessed that they smelled. Oddly, I don't remember seeing any blind girls or women - perhaps they stayed indoors. Home was, after all, considered the right place for any female to be, blind or not. It was still the standard assumption.

As ever, kids were cruel. And in general adults behaved little better. Blind persons with their tell-tale white sticks were figures of ridicule, and the occasional target of crass practical joking. For example, if a blind person wanted to know where the post office was, some kids might send them off in entirely the wrong direction, especially if they had almost reached the right place.

It was rare to see anyone in a wheelchair, at least in hilly Barry. Again, even if they had the courage to venture out, there were no ramps, no low-level handles, no special toilets for them to use. Getting a paper from the local newsagent might be an exhausting expedition fraught with problems. Cars might ignore you if you wanted to cross a road. You might anyway not get further than the first kerb. If your house had steps to the front door, then you were a prisoner. The luckiest had tiny, three-wheeled light blue cars made by a firm called AC. But they must have seemed like death traps.

And then there were some really freaky people called spastics. I well recall seeing them about as a child, and how grown-ups looked away and hustled their children aside, as if 'these people' were lepers. Poor devils. It was not realised why they had so little control over their movements, and why they couldn't speak properly. General ignorance, and fear of the odd and unusual, made spastic boys and girls, and especially spastic men and women, all persona non grata. Or worse, the butt of especially cruel humour. In school, it was for a long time a fashionable jibe to call someone a 'spastic'. Or to say, 'you've forgotten to put your leg irons on today'. Unbelievable! And I confess to joining in. It was nothing to greet someone with 'hello, you old spazz' or to refer to someone as 'that spastic Smith'. Or indeed, 'that homo Smith'. Such was the insensitive banter of grammar-school life.

But the victims of the thalidomide debacle left everyone speechless with horror. It just wasn't funny. It was awful. And yet there was no immediate concern that I remember for the little babies, just outrage and despair on the parents' side, and an immensely long battle to secure not just compensation but recognition. But all done almost in secret. 'Thalidomide' was a word of deathly power, like 'cancer' - too much to take in, its hapless victims too dreadfully maimed to dwell upon. All that changed, gradually. The public got braver, faced up to the reality of 'new wonder drugs' not properly tested, faced up to the increasingly frequent sight of limbless children. Maybe the social climate was changing anyway, but I like to think that the army of thalidomide victims led the way towards a higher plateau of tolerance and compassion. And also wonder at how a person so deprived of ordinary human form could nevertheless be a full citizen, a person to admire, and yes, a mother. For the thalidomide generation won the right to parenthood. It was no surprise to me when the nude statue of a thalidomide mother was erected in Trafalgar Square. The ultimate disabled person - celebrated for being as able as any. What an honour - both on her, and on a more mature society.

I believe that the tone of British society has improved immensely in the last forty or fifty years, and that the pace of change is quickening. So I suggest that for transsexual people there is much reason for optimism. After all, a dialogue is usually possible, laws exist, we have access to the media, and many of us are eloquent. We may seem different, but we are not freaks. We can explain and educate and bring about change.

It seems unlikely that we will be ordered to sew a yellow star on our clothing, or made to have our wrists tattooed with a special number, or herded into a ghetto, or trundled off to Treblinka in a cattle truck, stripped and naked, to be done away with. But anyone who has had a good explanation of what drives us, who has really thought about what we are, and yet still thinks we are not ordinary human beings - ordinary mums and dads - is helping the narrow-minded who would tidy us away if they could, murderously if need be. We are entitled to the same things as the rest. The same pleasures, and the same pains too. But also a chance to excel, to serve society, and improve the lot of human kind. Rather than be victims of its unthinking intolerance.


  1. Sometimes I think the only reason some societies have not repeated the horrors of the Nazis, is because the Nazis have been so universally vilified, that no one wants to be associated with them, even if they have similar bigoted sentiments. Oh, there have been some Nazi wannabes since WWII, but none of them have approached the scale of evil, that became a standard in the Third Reich.

    We are progressing, even if it doesn't always seem like it.

    Melissa XX


This blog is public, and I expect comments from many sources and points of view. They will be welcome if sincere, well-expressed and add something worthwhile to the post. If not, they face removal.

Ideally I want to hear from bloggers, who, like myself, are knowable as real people and can be contacted. Anyone whose identity is questionable or impossible to verify may have their comments removed. Commercially-inspired comments will certainly be deleted - I do not allow free advertising.

Whoever you are, if you wish to make a private comment, rather than a public one, then do consider emailing me - see my Blogger Profile for the address.

Lucy Melford