28 November 2002
For a while I said "berdache", until eventually one of them took me aside and explained, politely, in a slim, pale voice, that if I didn't stop doing that then somebody would break a bottle over my head.
It's the sort of slip that comes easily, thanks to the lack of education about this strange new people. It was explained that berdache was a European coining, originally pressed upon the first peoples of North America by colonists. Derived from the Persian for a young male lover, this term was used instead of any number of terms in the hundreds of original languages now struggling against extinction. This particular tribe was known as the Sweet.
It was the first time I had heard the term "first peoples" used in everyday conversation. However, I suspected that "political correctness", whatever that meant, was not an accusation to be levelled lightly. This group of tattooed young men and women, sitting on the floor of a flat in a converted hosiery factory, clearly took their heritage very seriously, even when it was not in the strictest sense their heritage.
Joahn, refilling my cup of aromatic tea, tried a different tack. I tried to take it all in.
"It's not as strange as you think. You're a man, right? You've got these characteristics that identify you as male - a hairy chest, a pair of testicles, a penis; all stuff I have as well. But that just makes you male. When you get up in the morning, you look at yourself in the mirror and see a man. What makes you a man? Not just your penis, or your hairy nostrils. It's a set of characteristics and expectations that constitute manhood. Goats are male, but they aren't men."
I offer that they are Billies, and get nothing but a funny look.
"Try it this way. You wake up tomorrow, and you look in the mirror. But you don't see a man anymore. You see somebody tall. You divide everyone up into the tall people and the short people. Some of both sets of people have penises - or is it penes? I've never really need to deal with that many at a time -and some have vaginas, just like some of them have black hair and some of them have blond hair. It's just a physiological difference, not a vital part of their identity. Yeah? But what if you don't feel tall or short? You're tall next to an oompa-loompa, short next to an elephant. You can't wake up in the morning, look at yourself in the mirror and say to yourself 'I am tall'."
I am not tall. For the record.
"Same thing happened to me, and to the rest of these people. We woke up and realised that we weren't men and we weren't women. We weren't women who wanted to be men, or men who wanted to be women. We weren't hermaphrodites, we weren't homosexuals or transexuals. We were Sweet. Adorable, in fact."
A light laugh, and the rustle of silk as Joahn's long, muscular body unfolds itself from the floor to stretch. Perhaps it is fitting that the heart of this movement grew up in the East Midlands, home of the old hosiery business, since the simple joy taken in personal adornment and dress was apparent throughout the group.
In 1843 a Connecticut town found that a member of its community with a penis and testicles, but who menstruated and had a vaginal opening, wanted to vote in a close election. The examining doctor first identified the applicant as a man, but the opinion was revised when "his feminine propensities, such as fondness for gay colors, for pieces of calico, comparing and placing them together, and an aversion for bodily labor and an inability to perform the same, were remarked by many". Nobody knows whether he (or she) was allowed the vote or not.
I remembered my own childhood not more than 20 miles down the road. In the playground, due to the peculiarities of the dialect, half-understood accusations of effeminacy sounded strangely flirtatious.
"You're sweet, you are. You're a sweet boy."
"Yeah? Well you're the sweetest boy in school. Even the headmaster thinks you're sweet."
I ask Joahn if this was an attempt to reclaim the term. Another feathery laugh. He has the longest eyelashes I have ever seen on a man, or a male, or whatever.
"No....I only found out about that after we moved here. It's a bit embarrassing, but I sort of enjoy it. The way it messes with peoples heads. To be honest, I was thinking about the band. You know, "Ballroom Blitz"? Hairy-shouldered guitarists with bricklayer's arses wearing cocktail dresses and slap. It seemed....amusingly inappropriate, I guess. I suppose if it gets too embarrassing we can always change it. We talk a lot about names here. And the future. And sex. We talk about sex a lot."
I wish I was better at reading signals. I have a feeling that Joahn is coming on to me. I wouldn't know where to start.
"So how about you? What do you see when you look into the mirror in the morning, Dan?"
I feel like a traitor to the future when I tell him my wife uses the bathroom first, so I don't see much but condensed steam.