29 March 2018
and Ladies Bathing
by J R Thomas
Some days it is not just necessary, but vital, to take a rolled ice-cold towel, retire to a darkened room, and sit, pressing the chilled instrument to the throbbing brow, trying to work out, without much hope of enlightenment, the current state of the human condition. Then again, there are times when a couple of hours in a darkened room lifts and clarifies and gives a sense of optimism and joy. Last week had opportunities for both. Let’s do the latter first.
“A Fantastic Woman” is a new film by Sebastian Lelio, filmed and set in Chile. It is the sort of film that makes one wonder, yet again, what the point of Hollywood is. Huge budgets expended in the strange air and light of California mostly seem to produce utter mush (usually “based on true events”) whilst film makers in Southern Europe, or, in this case South America, write stories, cast brilliant actors, and make films which interrogate what it is to be human, and point us to what we might usefully learn from observing the lives of others.
Daniela Vega plays Marina, a struggling club singer and waitress who is in love with the charming and older, and wealthier, Orlando. But Marina is not who she seems; she was Daniel, a man, she is transgender, and became Marina, a woman. The film is about her relationship with Orlando and the problems of dealing with his family, including an ex-wife, a son, and a brother. They are mostly when met neither happy nor understanding; and Marina is a very appealing character caught in a situation where she has to suffer from family, medical, and police hostility, as well as her own personal sorrows and demons.
What makes the movie so special is that as you emerge blinking you will understand all the characters and what they each go through. Sympathy for Marina indeed, but also, an insight into the feelings a conventional thoughtful ex-wife might have about her husband’s new life with a transsexual; about how a son might have to deal with a side of his father most children do not normally want to spend even a moment considering; about others who fear, as so often we all do, something we do not understand. But the carefully underplayed point of the movie is that these are fundamentally good people. They are trying to deal with the challenge of understanding the world, their economic status, maybe even their own sexuality, in the circumstances they suddenly have to deal with. They may react badly initially, but in the end their humanity has reappeared. Hidden in the human spirit, you may then reflect, is goodness and decency and understanding; deeply hidden sometimes, but not incapable of excavation.
The message of this tale, the skill of its director, its writer, its cast, in particular Daniela Vega, herself a transsexual, is a plea for calm and thoughtfulness. Grief and anger and hostility are there, but, the film says, look at yourself, consider what we each want from life and love; after reflection and with goodwill, much anger goes. These fictional characters have learnt a measure of sympathy for others, that the complexities of our inner lives do not make us any less human. So should the real-life audience.
Until, until… Last week a group – well, two – women joined a men only swimming session in the local authority swimming pool at Dulwich (London) Leisure Centre. They informed staff at the pool that they self-identified as men, went into the male changing rooms, donned male swimming shorts, and joined in the session. The men in the pool do not seem to have had any comment to make. One suspects though that if the session had been ladies only, and men had joined in, self-identifying as women, even wearing appropriate female swimwear (bikinis forfend) lots of people would have had a lot to say; indeed that there would have been a concerted effort to prevent the men accessing the pool and a mini riot if they had.
Such a storm in a swimming pool is brewing nicely in Dulwich’s north London equivalent, Hampstead. The River Fleet runs through Hampstead Heath and supplies a series of ponds with fresh water. For many years that has provided on the Heath three bathing pools, one for men, one for ladies, and one mixed. The Kenwood Ladies Pond is somewhat a home of progressive bathing – or at least the bathers tend to be progressive – heavily screened from the surrounding footpaths so that the ladies may wear as little as they care to on hot Hampstead afternoons. Early this year, the City of London, which manages the ponds and ever noted as a bastion of liberal and radical thinking, decreed that the Ladies Pond was open to transgender persons on a basis of self-identification as female. This has created very hot water around the pond, if not in it. The general mood of the Kenwood Ladies Pond Association, which represents the users and is a lot more noted for advanced thinking than the City of London (we were being ironic earlier) generally feels transgender persons are welcome, but only if they do not identify as male, or indeed are not male. The pond already has some transgender users who identify as female, who say one of the particular charms of the pond is that it is a safe place away from men.
In Australia a local authority has taken the next obvious splash and created in its pools transgender only nights, which no doubt gives comfort for some users, but probably not others – such as the Kenwood transsexual quoted above. Generally though this seems to have been welcomed by the local transgender community, who say that concerns are almost always more to do with changing rooms than who is actually in the pool.
This issue has an enormous ability to become fiendishly complex. After all, we are only sticking a toe at the moment into swimming pools, and have not even ventured into public toilets or tennis matches or Labour Party constituency short lists.
But why should it be complex, or controversial, or combative? We are all the same weak species jammed together in uncomfortable proximity, with our phobias and worries and embarrassments. A little understanding would go an awful long way, as hopefully it really does in Chile, once people get their mind round the fact that humans find love and happiness in various ways, but most solutions do not hurt anybody else. Yes, there is a risk that rude men will pretend to be transsexual women for the sake of getting into female changing rooms or swimming alongside naked ladies in a private pool. They could do that now, sometimes they do. But they soon get spotted and asked to leave. That is not to understate the risks, but without government licensing of each person’s sexual orientation, no doubt after an exhaustive cross examination, it is a risk that has to be run.
If we let things evolve, and don’t shriek and shout and curse, things should sort themselves out. sPeople who identify as female will use female facilities and those who feel themselves to be male will use those. Those who cheat, for whatever reason, will be identified and routed out and will learn how to behave properly and decently. A very few persons will end up in court, as, sadly, a few people do now. Life will go on and some people who in the past have been very unhappy will be much more contented. And won’t that be a wonderful thing?