Thursday, 28 July 2011

High level passing

Now that the op is receding into the past, and I feel embedded into the world of women as never before, I find myself pushing the boundaries of acceptance more and more. I constantly feel a wicked, daredevil urge inside to see whether I can pass with flying colours in this or that social situation.

I'm not talking about just getting by on appearance alone. This high-level test of passing involves the skilful use of appearance, voice, manner, body language, body movement, projection of personality, and an ability to speak naturally on every subject likely to arise in a normal conversation - without giving away the fact that you spent most of your life struggling in  a male role. I'm talking about a prolonged exposure to intelligent, no-nonsense, eagle-eyed people, skilled in reading facial expressions and detecting nuances, who will engage you in deep conversation. With, in some instances, a further series of firey hoops to leap through - whether you have a good social background, a delicate appreciation of the finer things of life, genuine culture, genuine personal experience, savoir faire, some higher education, and (of course) some money. Overall, I'm now putting myself to tests of a much higher order than simply window-shopping in a bustling shopping centre. You are not anonymous. You are the centre of attention whenever speaking, or when asked a question. And the probing - even within the limits of good manners - can be fearsome.

I will tell you about my latest test - or ordeal, if you see it that way! - in a moment. For now I want to assure everyone that most of the time I'm just plain unpretentious Lucy, an ordinary person you might see anywhere, someone wanting to blend in, not looking for difficulties, not on a 'look at me' kick, and most certainly not on a self-destructive mission to get found out. This is typically how I look in public, and in a typical situation:

The venue was Wakehurst Place, the home of Kew Gardens in the Sussex countryside and also a National Trust property. It has a old house, gardens, a series of lakes, a modern restaurant, and the Milennium Seed Bank, which stores millions of plant seeds from around the world in case they are needed to reintroduce plants that have become extinct in a changing climate, or to develop better-adapted new varieties for the centuries to come. It's a good place to walk in, the terrain encompassing a range of plant habitats from rock faces to wetlands, sunny open lawns, shadowy valleys, and walled gardens. Trees, shrubs, heathers, reeds, lillies, and flowers everywhere. I was with two friends. The top shot is me in the Seed Bank; next down me in the restaurant. That's how I generally look when out and about in summertime. No miniskirts or fishnets, no bling, no attention-grabbing eye makeup. Lately my arms have become rather girly, so I deliberately show them off as an extra visual clue that I'm female. A pity about the slightly overlarge hands, but even with those, you can disguise their size by using them gracefully - even when (as here) trying to unscrew a bottle top - and you can help them out with those slender arms outstretched.

Those arms really are a vital asset. I'm constantly using them to send out messsages of femininity. Just as the bag strap across my chest in the top picture has deepened the valley between my breasts, and draws attention to their existence. I knew it would do that. So I used that bag, with the cross-body strap, and not a handbag, or a shoulder bag. 

And so to my demanding test. It was at the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester. The occasion was the AGM of the Friends of Pallant House Gallery. I was a Friend, and had been invited. Here's a link to the Gallery website, so that you can judge for yourself was kind of lion's den I was walking into: The Chairlady of the AGM was Lady Nicholas Gordon Lennox, sister in law to the Duke of Richmond and (in 2003 anyway) lady-in-waiting to Princess Alexandra. I mention this to give you an idea of the tone of the event. Also in attendance was the Director of the Gallery, Stefan van Raay, and these two articles from the Guardian in 2006 ( and the Sunday Times in 2008 ( will tell you something about him, and the status of the Gallery. Well, I noticed him when he arrived, and he gave me a warm, beautiful smile.

This shot, taken in the ladies toilets, will give you some idea of what I wore:

Sorry about the visible toilet seat. The pale jade skirt was long and voluminous, and ankle-length. It moved and flowed wonderfully. Peeping out from underneath were a pair of flats in pale gold. It was exactly the sort of outfit needed for the occasion. It was understated and nodded to the warm summer evening, but formal enough.

The AGM was well-attended. I counted who was seated, and the total was at least 70. A lot more than I'd expected. I sat in the back row with two ladies on my left called Faye and Jeanette, and a couple called Pam and Ian on my right. I'd met Faye when I arrived; we immediately smiled and spoke to each other, and continued the conversation at a table in the Gallery courtyard. Jeanette was her friend, and joined us later. Jeanette was a voting member of some section of the Chichester Cathedral congregation. Pam and Ian had moved from Burford in the Cotswolds one year before, mainly because Ian's bad knees couldn't cope with Burford's steep streets, and they wanted to be in a place that was flat, offered culture, good living, and had a fine hospital close by. We were all getting beyond middle-age; I was the baby in this company, everyone else being about ten years older. But collectively we must have looked like trouble, because the Deputy Chairlady Jillie came over to us and laughingly hoped that we wouldn't disrupt the proceedings with our lively chat. That meant me too, of course.

The AGM went smoothly, and surprisingly fast. The financial statements provided for everyone were long (18 pages, including the explanatory notes) but not terribly informative. The main item that needed explanation was a donation to the Gallery of some £1,386,000 from Friends' funds. Nobody had much to say about that. I think it was taken for granted that everything was in good hands. The only question of any substance (from a gentleman with a terribly posh and super-educated accent) centred on why the Gallery accounts and the Friends' accounts were not available at the same time of the year. I did wonder why people had turned up, if they weren't going to ask questions! But then it was primarily a social event. The whole thing was wrapped up in an hour, and then we broke up into little groups. That meant wine, and a bit more chat. I had a quick and sneaky second look at the Frida Kahlo paintings, then adjourned to a table with Faye and Jeanette.

We chatted for another 45 minutes, just the three of us. I tried very hard to detect that 'ah-ha' look in their eyes that said 'something here that we weren't expecting' but there was nary a glint of it. Perhaps I'm dense and imperceptive, and it was there after all, and these pleasant ladies had simply been polite and well-mannered and had chosen not to embarrass me. Be that as it may, we discussed pictures and food and wine and coffee and personal careers and the government's policy on funding art. Christella would have been proud of me, my voice never faltering. I even managed two girly sneezes. I think I did jolly well.

Eventually it time to go. We made smiling farewells.

You can imagine me walking on air with light steps, my skirt dancing around my legs in the soft evening breeze, as I made my way back to Fiona.

It had all been an intoxicating boost to my self-confidence. They say (well, Roxy Music said) love is the drug. So is successful passing!

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