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Combating Isolation - The Cambridge Girls

Di Aitchison

 
GENDYS JOURNAL

Issue 33
Spring 2006

 
Once upon a time - well, nearly a decade ago, there stood an old coaching inn called The Town and Gown that was situated on the edge of Cambridge city. The building is still there but is now called something else being on its third metamorphism since those heady days when we, the transgendered community, held sway on Wednesday evenings. However, I've got ahead of myself a bit and should explain further how that happy state of affairs came about.

My hairdresser Ginny (we go back many years) informed me one day that our mutual friends John and Roger had taken over the Town and Gown from the lesbian community, as it had suddenly become available and the gay community in general were being ousted from their long-standing venue at The Burliegh Arms. The pub had several bars, including an outside one in the old stables and coach house that was big enough to house a Disco and dance floor. Had I got any ideas how it could be utilised mid-week?

It so happened that they already had a DJ called JJ who was TV and at a loose end during the week, so that solved one problem straightaway and it didn't take long for the word to get around. Within a couple of weeks more than fifty transgendered people at various levels appeared, not just from the local community, but from Peterborough, Huntingdon, Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk and Northants. What struck me straight away was that the popularity of the venue wasn't the only reason so many people were appearing and from so far away. As I extricated myself from their lipstick-laden kisses on my cheeks and their friendly bear hugs I was rapidly learning how isolated many of the individuals had felt before they heard about the new social gathering. It wasn't a formal meeting or expensive nightclub but simply somewhere to "park me 'andbag and let me 'air down" as one girl put it. Another told me how she was just hours away from 'ending it all' when a friend rang her and asked her if she would like to try out this new pub thing in Cambridge.

This joyful event continued for many months until JJ started to get rather carried away with her decibels and got us closed down for six months by the Health and Safety and Noise Abatement people. Fortunately so many golden friendships had been forged by now that people kept coming anyway just to talk and Bar Meals were available for those who wanted them. One particular sub-group developed that became affectionately known as 'Russell's Girls' - it was almost as if they had been waiting to find each other for support and empathy before they booked their appointments in Earl's Court - practically en masse, or so it seemed.

One of the problems with meeting in pubs is that some of them tend to be very smoky and this was very much the case at the T & G. It's long low ceilings trapped the noxious fumes at a level where they couldn't quickly escape via the small chimney opening in the fireplace nor the antiquated extractor. One by one smoke-sensitive members drifted away and we began to despair - much as we loved John and Roger, we would have to think seriously about moving to a different venue. Then the unthinkable happened. Suddenly and without warning our beloved landlord John passed away, soon after closing time one October Wednesday night.

Roger was able to stay on at the T & G for several more months and of course we couldn't leave him so we stayed on to support him. Cambridge City Council own the building and they were in the process of 'gentrifying' the surrounding area, so despite several promises by the Brewery as to the modernisation that they were going to effect on the pub, the lease mysteriously ran out and we were on the move. By the June of the next year we had taken up residence at the Bird in Hand where we remain to this day.

The Bird in Hand is an Arts and Crafts style pub with many original features and much more user-friendly. Roger stayed for a few months, taking on a new business partner David but his heart wasn't in it. Despite meeting a new life-long love Shane and moving to the pub over the road, The Rose and Crown, they eventually left the trade altogether and moved to Suffolk, leaving David to carry on looking after his Wednesday Girls as he calls us. Such is his devotion to 'his' girls that he lends out his own bedroom for dressing facilities, has erected a permanent marquee in the yard for social events and dinners (more than 30 of us sat down to a 5 course Christmas Dinner in there last year) and helps 'newbies' with their hair and make up so that they appear in public, often for the first time, looking their best. Wigs and frocks are lent out as needed and advice handed out in spades whenever required. Bar Meals are available until 9pm.

During the seven or so years since we started meeting in that friendly and informal way at the T & G dozens of girls have come and gone. Many have remained in touch and call in when ever they are in the area and we have connections with a TV couple who run a B & B in France, dress as you like, for those who fancy venturing further afield. No transgendered person need feel alone on New Years Eve if they are within travelling distance of the Bird in Hand. The pub is open to the transgendered community 24/7 unlike many similar establishments who give over just one night to 'diversity' while remaining smugly 'straight' for the rest of the week

The bond that many girls have with the pub was demonstrated when one girl Claire had a nasty car accident a few weeks ago. After a night in Harlow Hospital she headed fifty miles to Cambridge instead of going back to an empty flat, just so that she could be among friends, regardless of a broken nose and ribs and numerous bruises. Others state that they don't know what they would do if they hadn't got the Bird to come to on Wednesdays, as they tend to lead very isolated lives during the week. Many have jobs and some haven't worked for years. Some use the pub nearly every night, most use it on Wednesdays and weekends and others can only manage once a month. Each has their own story to share with others who, until they found the group, thought that they were the only person to have the feelings that everyone is describing.

Singles, marrieds, separated, divorced and widowed - all appear over time and their stories are interchangeable. Couples are always welcome of course and admirers too, as well as those who just want to learn about us.

And while I relate their experiences I mustn't forget the wonderful staff who work so tirelessly to make sure that everyone is cared for and very importantly cared about. No false air kisses here, only real, warm wet smackers on lips and cheeks along with gentle hugs and appreciative touches and strokes in a touchy-feely way. The respect that they and the lesbigay regulars hold for the transgendered clientele is awesome - no unwanted sexual approaches or sickly innuendos. David and the crew have the most delightful sense of humour without making anyone feel uncomfortable or embarrassed.

The Girls have learned a lot too; anyone who has read Simon Baron-Cohen's book The Essential Difference will know about Systemizing and Empathising. This is where Simon suggests that male brains are systemisers (lists, geeks) and female ones empathise. It is true that when many girls arrive for the first time they tend to be wrapped up in their own needs and behave in quite an insular way, very wary of the others and suspicious of their motives. Magically, over time I can observe many social changes in their individual behaviour and soon several can be relied on to give someone a lift or meet up for a day out, help them when they are poorly and offer assistance as required.

Some of the Girls are self-diagnosed Asperger's Syndrome types (or Aspies as they call themselves) and were hard to get through to when they first arrived as individuals at the Bird. All have since admitted that the regular contact that they have with their new found but life long friends has helped them break through the sense of loneliness and isolation that they used to feel. One particular girl, Susan, offered to take over the organising of the Christmas Dinner for me last year which was a triumph for her.

Several Girls turned up at my bedside when I broke my ankle last year and ex-nurse Simone (as Simon) actually 'sprang' me later from the side ward where I'd been abandoned, organised my drug 'takeaway' from the Pharmacy (no mean feat, it can take days to liberate your prescription from this iron-fist run emporium) and arrange for my husband to come and collect me.

This has been the story of the Cambridge Girls and their way of combating isolation by creating an oasis of love and friendship in the middle of a small East Anglian University City. What has happened here can happen anywhere. All it takes is the will and everything else will follow.

I'm not a transgendered woman. My husband Jim is TV but doesn't feel the need to come out in public. He used to attend Beaumont Society meetings many years ago but, as his close friends either moved or passed away, he retreated to the comfort and freedom of dressing at will at home. He says it suits him very well and he is happy but I missed my friends from the transgendered community and it seems they weren't going to let me retire. I couldn't imagine missing a Wednesday night out with the Girls unless we are on holiday or I have to work or am ill. As well as running Women of the Beaumont Society (WOBS), I enjoy the confidence of Cambridgeshire Constabulary as many BS members do in their own Constabularies, and participate in their Diversity Programmes, often taking along a Cambridge Girl, something she would never have imagined doing on her own.

I am also proud to be a member of the Beaumont Society Executive Committee although I don't get to the meetings as often as I would like and I also value my position as a Beaumont Trust Trustee as well as being a member of Gendys Network of course. Through these agencies I have enjoyed wonderful friendships and support without which I would be a lesser individual I'm sure, but most of all it is the going out and meeting people that I enjoy most of all, and if I am helping someone else at the same time then my life is complete.

References:

  • Baron-Cohen, S (2003): The Essential Difference. Penguin
  • Bird in Hand, 73 Newmarket Road, Cambridge 01223 353791
  • B & B Vaulx France e-mail: andrea_hesdin@hotmail.com
  • Ginny: www.transgsalon.co.uk
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