Charles O’Grady: Human
Hi. I’m Maeve Marsden and welcome to Queerstories – the podcast for the LGBTQI+ storytelling night I host and programme. Queerstories events happen regularly in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne, and I’m also now hosting them in regional towns. If you enjoy these stories, please rate, review and subscribe to the podcast, and consider buying a copy of the Queerstories book: A collection of 26 of the stories edited by me and published by Hachette. I’m really proud of this collection and I hope you enjoy it too.
Charles O’Grady is a queer transgender theatremaker, poet, and journalist who lives between Sydney and Melbourne. As a playwright, he has written multiple works focused on intersectional queer and trans storytelling, including Kaleidoscope, Telescope, and Are We Awake? He has worked on productions with such mainstage companies as Griffin, Malthouse, Belvoir, and STC. And he’s alarmingly young when you realise everything that he has achieved. Charles is a fierce advocate for nuanced trans representation and trans stories that are told by trans people, and has worked for the last four years to bring other trans and queer artists into the theatrical conversation.
When he’s not doing all of the theatre, Charles enjoys horror films, neckwear, and dancing it out. Charles performed this story in both Sydney and Melbourne.
When I sat down to write this for the first time in, I think, my entire extremely talkative life, I had nothing to say. The story I was going to tell tonight was a light-hearted, farcical caper – if you will – about how a grand collision of red tape and heteronormativity once resulted in the Australian government thinking that I was my own wife.
What had happened was I had participated in a letter-writing campaign, and in the confusion of me signing the email “Charles O’Grady” but needing to put my birth name into the form for it to count, I got a reply addressed to a “Mr and Mrs O’Grady,” like we were married – Mrs O’Grady and I – which, I would like to add, she would never be okay with Mrs. She would be Ms O’Grady. It infuriated her. She was furious.
At the time, I thought, “Do they think that Charles writes stern emails to Malcolm Turnbull, but then chickens out and makes his wife send them for him?” And the more I thought about it, the funnier Charles’ wife became. I mean, she gets all of my mail, she pays all of my bills. I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing. And so I now use my husband Charles to get out of situations where it would be unwise or unfun to out myself, like airports, and Ubers, and most places with cis people.
And it is a funny story, and a poignant one, about how I started to view my past self more kindly when I was pretending that ‘she’ was someone else. The whole thing, the story, was supposed to end with a kind of therapeutic theatrical moment – because I’m extremely on-brand – where I, as my former self-slash-wife, who I was going to name Jane after Jane Campton-Brophy, who is an American woman who penned an essay earlier this year called How to Murder Your Husband, and was, a couple of months later, convicted for murdering her husband.
It’s a true story. You can Google it. Anyway, I, as Jane, was going to divorce Charles O’Grady on stage to kind of give that part of my life – the part of my life that I spent as a woman – the kind of validation and recognition that I can rarely afford it. And you were all going to laugh, and then later stare thoughtfully out the tram window thinking, “Wow, that was brave.”
It is a good story, but it’s also a story about one of the many ways that I’ve tried over the years to make myself not mind about the day-to-day, moment-to-moment tolls that being trans takes. It’s a story about making it a game when an Uber trip starts with, “But that’s a boys name.” Or a job interview starts with, “I thought Charles was going to be a boy!” To which one can only really say, “So did I.”
It’s a story about picking up packages for my terribly busy, and successful, and financially solvent playwright husband, who just doesn’t have time to get to the post office, or a story about when I broke my leg two months ago, entertaining myself in the waiting room thinking about how my husband Charles was going to make fun of me for being so clumsy, even telling X-Ray techs and ED nurses about him, and what a grouchy workaholic he is, which isn’t untrue. And all of these are things that I do because it’s a way to not mind that I am being misgendered or othered. It’s a way to turn a daily embarrassment into something I can control, something I can turn into a good story later.
But when I sat down to commit that to paper this week, I couldn’t. I couldn’t not mind because on Monday morning I woke up to headlines telling me that the US government was considering effectively defining trans identity out of existence through a new and narrow legal definition of gender, which I have to say confounded me. Not in terms of why – I understand that we in the trans community have had it far too easy lately, and we needed to be taken down a peg or two.
I’m more confused as to the methodology. Like the mental image that I have is that they’re sitting there in the Department of Health and Human Services, huddled around a whiteboard that says “Stop the Trans?” And then some intern says, “Well, maybe if we change what gender means, the Trans will just be, like, not any more?” Like, they’re just going to squeeze their eyes shut and put their fingers in their ears, and go, “La la la la. I can’t hear you,” until we all give up and say, “Fine, you got me. All cats are girls and all dogs are boys.” That’s my best impression of a cis person.
And, of course, I’m being glib again. I’m trying not to mind. What this really means if it happens is that the next time a trans kid tries to enter a school bathroom, someone can say, “Well, our government says that gender is defined on a biological basis and can only be disputed by genetic evidence,” and subject that child to no end of humiliation and violence.
This linguistic quibble is life-threatening, not just in its immediate cause and effect but in the way that ripples around the world. So, I woke up on Monday and I wondered, not for the first time, and I imagine not the last, how many trans people would die this week, and how many of those that we’d even hear about.
And in a week where the very definition of my existence is in question, a week where gender divergence has been described by elected officials as, “Tearing apart the fabric of the Universe,” – which I guess I’m glad they finally picked up on the agenda – in a month where our own Prime Minister has told us that what I am is a corruption of youth, whispered into tender ears with insidious glee. I didn’t want to pretend that I didn’t care.
So, instead, I wanted to tell you a story about overcoming adversity, about how I did go to a religious high school that could have expelled me for being queer, a school that didn’t but made every effort to silence me when I started to think that maybe I could be a person and not a problem. Or, a story about all the missteps and misshapen identities I adopted before I finally found one that fit, because no one was there in my formative years to tell me that it was okay or not sinful, or not embarrassing, or not inappropriate. A story about how if I’d had a gender whisperer, I might have saved myself years of confusion and self-hatred. But that hurt too, and I didn’t want to stand up here and summon my ghosts, and the ghosts of every queer person here, because I didn’t want to care too much.
So, what story am I supposed to tell? When the big picture of your existence is agonising to behold, but every minute brushstroke, every day-to-day mundanity, is like water torture – just as painful – it’s hard to see yourself as a person, and not a kind of wobbling ideological Jenga tower. I can’t afford to extract one piece of me and show it to you without the whole thing toppling down.
In a time that feels like institutional open season on anything divergent, I am running out of energy to turn pain into good stories, which sucks because that’s my job. But, before any of us are stories, we are people, and I have to remember that I am a person. So, I am sorry I couldn’t come up here tonight and tell a good story; I really did want to. I hope that me coming up here and being a person instead is, for now, enough. Thank you.