Laurence Anyways, the third movie from Quebec’s wunderkind filmmaker Xavier Dolan – he’s only 23 and already a habitué of the Cannes Festival – deals with a serious subject, transgenderism, albeit in a baroque, exuberant way.
I just saw the movie in Montreal, where it opened at about the same time it was being shown in Cannes. As I was walking home, still shaken and moved by the story of Laurence, a 30-year-old teacher who desperately needs to become a woman but still clings to his relationship with his beloved Fred (a woman), I started thinking about the hidden agonies suffered by the two transsexuals I’ve met in my life.
The first was Claude, a journalist who used to work on the desk of a Montreal newspaper decades ago, at a time when most of us didn’t even know transgenderism existed. Claude, a married man, was a bit awkward, something I attributed to his hyper-intellectualism. (He could theorize about Marxism for hours, which tended to make people flee.)
It happened gradually. His appearance started to change. He let his hair grow over his shoulders, which, even at a time when men sported long hair, was a bit weird. He had always been rather retiring, but he withdrew more and more from the newsroom. At one point, he completely stopped talking to colleagues even though they would spend long evenings together laying out the paper. When he resigned from the paper for unexplained reasons, he looked like someone in a Hieronymus Bosch depiction of hell: frightfully pale, straight red hair hiding his emaciated face, the haggard look of a disoriented man. We thought he was going through depression.
Many years later, a colleague of mine met him by chance in a diner in a small town, where Claude, now Claudine, was working as a waitress. She introduced herself, otherwise my colleague wouldn’t have recognized this aging, ordinary-looking waitress.
She had paid a high price for her sex change, moving away from Montreal and leaving an interesting job to eventually become a poorly paid waitress in a mediocre restaurant. Retrospectively, I realize that Claude was unable to face his colleagues while undergoing his sex change. He was the victim of an era when such things were unfathomable.
The story of Roberta is more recent and more uplifting. Robert, a university professor, was married with two kids. I remember dancing with him at a party and finding him tense and brusque, like someone extremely uncomfortable in his own skin. Later, I heard he had undergone a sex change. When I saw him again, Robert had become Roberta: a tall woman with large shoulders and small hips, her impressive frame always resting on dainty high-heeled sandals that highlighted impeccably painted toenails.
Her clothes were much more feminine than those typically worn by female academics – tight skirts, angora sweaters, pearl necklaces and so on. I don’t think she owns a single pair of pants.
Roberta was lucky to be born later than Claude. There’s no doubt that she went through a great deal of suffering, but she still works in a university, is on friendly terms with her ex and close to her kids (who still call her Dad). She once told me that the only hostile people she meets on campus are radical feminists, who deny her any title to womanhood because she was not victimized as a woman in her earlier life. Ideology makes some people dumb – and cruel to boot.