“At the big spa in town, you have to shower naked,” says our guide, Helga, with some relish. “The tourists don’t like this, especially the American women, and sometimes they try to shower with their swimsuits on. Now, I’m a big lady, and I put on my deepest voice, and I bellowed at them to take their clothes off. You should have seen them scurry away!”
Helga and Jackie burst into raucous laughter. There are some polite chuckles from the men in the group. I say nothing and look away.
Helga is not a big lady. Helga is a tall, rugged man who has had his eyebrows plucked and his penis cut off. I don’t need to speculate about this with terfy prurience, or perform the fabled genital inspections, as he has told us all about his operation a great many times already. It’s day two of a wilderness expedition in Scandinavia, and we’re reliant for our safety on a man who will not shut up about the contents of his pants. I grit my teeth and give thanks once again that the group is small enough that we don’t have to share tents.
There are five of us on the trip—two youngish men so far removed from gender discourse that they don’t even recognize the trans flag; Jackie, an older lady full of Not Like The Other Girls energy; and Claire, a fellow fortysomething who hadn’t followed gender issues closely, but whose discomfort with the situation almost matched my own. All we were missing was a beardy bloke to tell us ladies what to think about the issue, and it would have been an almost perfect reflection of society in microcosm.
I wasn’t quite sure what to make of Helga at first glance. He picked us up from the bus station wearing tight capris, a tight shirt, and a ponytail under a baseball cap, and I didn’t catch his name; was this some unfamiliar men’s Euro-fashion or was he trying to dress “as a woman?” Were those eyebrows just a bit too neat and unnatural? Is he wearing foundation or just sunblock? Regular moobs or the estrogen variety? Is he making that weird pouty face on purpose? I didn’t have to ponder for long; within about ten minutes, he had declared his identity as “a transgender woman” and started telling us about a local documentary that had been made about his bravery and unconventional life.
Quite likely he’d misinterpreted our scrutiny as a form of “Is that a man or a woman?”, that proverbial bad-faith question asked by homophobic grandparents in the 70s and 80s during Top of the Pops. His sex, though, was never in question; even Jackie, who tried her hardest to “validate” him at every turn, first greeted his appearance with “Oh, I was expecting a woman!”.
I made some quick calculations about the male/female numbers in the group, and set to worrying about what the sleeping arrangements might be, and whether I’d need to make a fuss. The travel company had promised we’d be sharing rooms on a “same-gender” basis—did they mean same-sex? I hadn’t even thought to check.
In the back of the minibus, the group made introductory small talk. Is this your first time in the country? Have you been on this type of adventure before? The two men were quiet and conventional; Claire was friendly and asked more questions than she answered; Jackie was talkative but mostly about herself. More than the rest of us, she looked the part of a rugged adventurer, and I was hoping she’d make a fun travel companion, but there was an edge to her conversation that gave me pause. As if her identity depended on being The Most Rugged Lady Adventurer In The Village, she always had to top our tales with a boast of her own. Only mine and Claire’s, of course. She deplored the existence of “women’s” outerwear, and was proud that she bought hers from the men’s section. She mocked Claire for needing to check in with her teenage son on the phone. Had Jackie been forty years younger, you can bet there would have been pronouns.
“Back at the camp, Helga has changed back into his miniskirt, which he wears around the campfire while cooking.”
She wasn’t the only one to keep talking about herself. During the long drive to our destination, Helga spent less time telling us about the sights and scenery than about himself, his life and his achievements. Not his genitals, not yet—those conversations would wait until we were a genuinely captive audience. For the moment, there were enough nuggets dropped for me to piece together a picture of almost textbook autogynephilia—there was an ex-wife somewhere, and a child or two that he’d ditched to follow his fetish; an ultra-macho hobby and an obsession with how he was perceived. A litany of dull, dull boasts, me me me me me. I looked at the blonde ponytail coming out the back of his baseball cap. Dollars to donuts there was a bald patch under there. He never took the cap off.
Helga’s adventure-guide credentials clearly hadn’t prepared him for some of the less rugged aspects of guiding, such as knowing the itinerary, communicating unexpected changes, or remembering that we needed to eat. Instead of the central hotel and restaurant meal we’d expected for our first night, we were eventually dropped off late at a remote self-catering lodge, petrol-station hotdogs in hand, to ponder the events of the day. The five guests gathered in the corridor to chat before we turned in; all of us had been on small-group trips before, and this one was unusually amateurish. And Helga himself? Awkward silences, awkward platitudes. We’d all been on enough small-group trips to know that it was a bad idea to alienate your companions by spouting political opinions; we were diplomatic and guarded. This was no time for terfing. Tiptoeing around the trans question, we gave him much more leeway for his failures than we otherwise would have; there was an eggshell brittleness to the topic, and nobody wanted to put a foot wrong.
The organisational failures continued well into the next day, but it was with great relief that we were eventually issued with a tent each, and there was no question of anyone being asked to share. As we packed up the last of our equipment, Helga reappeared, brandishing a small plastic bottle with a large hole cut into the side. This, he explained, was his homemade she-wee. If you make one yourself, remember to sand down the edges, or you might get a nasty cut in an unfortunate place, haha! We nodded politely, really not wanting the mental images. Why was he telling us this?
To reinforce how convenient this device was, he wandered a few yards away, turned his back, and made use of it. We hadn’t even left the depot yet; there was a real toilet just indoors, and there he was, pissing out in the open, with a flimsy excuse that stretched “plausible deniability” to its breaking point.
“Was he taking advantage of our isolation and dependency and general British politeness to override our obvious discomfort with the subject?”
Several strenuous hours later, we’d reached our campsite—beautiful, wild, bleak, and utterly, utterly remote. In other words, we were now a captive audience. Helga ramped up the trans talk almost immediately, dropping in references to his castration wherever he could manage it. Often this took the form of jolly anecdotes that we were clearly expected to laugh along with.
“Some old men were complaining about how women make all the drama, but I told them that all the drama in me was taken away with my balls!”
“The first time I wore a drysuit after the operation, I forgot I no longer had a penis, and when I unzipped my fly to pee and went to grab it, there was nothing to grab!”
“After my operation, the doctor told me that in some cultures, trans people were considered to be almost gods!”
He approached Claire, walking alone on the beach, and told her how, as a teen, he’d hated his penis so much he almost cut it off with a knife. Uh, good for you, I guess? How do you even respond to something like that? Why should anyone have to?
Early in the Trump administration, commentators had exhorted us to keep hold of our expectations of “normal,” so we would see how far from normal things had become. This trip had started strange and become stranger; I had to dredge out my memories of other tour leaders to realize how abnormal this behavior was.
No other tour guide I could think of would have so much as mentioned their genitalia, not even once. They wouldn’t have told us all about any other medical treatment in such detail. They wouldn’t have pissed in front of the group. Nothing about this was normal. And yet nobody was saying anything. I wasn’t saying anything. Did Helga move in circles, online or off, where this topic was so normalized as to have become regular small talk? Or was he taking advantage of our isolation and dependency and general British politeness to override our obvious discomfort with the subject? To override it and even enjoy causing it? I felt grubby, all the time.
Look at what’s in front of you, don’t be distracted by the glitter. You are trapped in the wilderness with a man who won’t stop talking about his penis. This is not good. This is not normal.
Day 3. Jackie has now become openly hostile towards Claire, with mean-girl behavior quite incongruous from a woman in her 60s. We find jellyfish washed up on the beach, which Claire deems rather upsetting and disgusting; Jackie picks one up and throws it at her, she and Helga squealing with laughter. And there it is again—dominance and power plays, using our discomfort to jostle for status and reinforce their own perceived superiority. Towards Helga, Jackie now affects a chummy gal-pal sycophancy, which Helga quite laps up. Except on the very frequent occasions when Jackie slips and calls him “he,” far more often than anyone else does, a hilarious Freudian slip which serves to illustrate which dynamic is really in play here.
Back at the camp, Helga has changed back into his miniskirt, which he wears around the campfire while cooking. The rest of us are still wearing the grubby hiking trousers and multiple woollen layers that we’ve been sleeping in for two nights. I can’t tell if he’s touched up his makeup again, but his performance of femininity still includes that peculiar expression that I noticed on the first day—a sort of wide-eyed, open-mouthed pout that is familiar from the many selfies and avatars I’ve seen in the trans regions of Twitter and Reddit. Is this what they think women look like? Do they think we also laugh alone at salad? He obviously missed the memo about how women don’t typically blow snot out of their noses into the bushes, or how we generally go behind a rock to piss. Even the men in the group go behind a rock to piss. Helga still just takes his she-wee a few yards away and turns his back.
In the evening, he gets us to watch the documentary he’d mentioned on the journey up. It’s on a small laptop screen, subtitled in English; we strain to read the captions. The adventurous scenery sections are thrilling and beautiful. The interspersed discussion of his life and his transition are not. In equal measure tawdry and uncomfortable, a string of family and friends pop up in well-worn talking-heads format to offer support, astonishment, bewilderment, praise, to a stirring stock-music soundtrack. It’s all very Lifestyle Channel.
“Do they think we also laugh alone at salad?”
I tick off my day-one assumptions as they are confirmed, one by one. Yep, there’s the bald patch. There’s the poor ex-wife, love-bombed into a quick marriage and then gaslit as he resumed his teenage obsessive crossdressing habit. The secret meetings with other crossdressing men. The eventual divorce, leaving her to raise their child—seems that his fantasies of womanhood didn’t include the boring babysitting parts. He was quite handsome as a man. No weird pout in those older shots. Onscreen, he complains bitterly about an extremely mild “misgendering” incident, and swears he will leave the country.
He wasn’t harassed in the incident, he wasn’t discriminated against, he wasn’t obstructed. He was merely observed to be male, and that was enough to provoke a tearful meltdown. As if we weren’t already walking on eggshells enough, monitoring our own language to avoid naming the obvious fact that we could all see! The sight of this burly man having an onscreen tantrum at his inability to control others’ perceptions… it was a reason to tread even more carefully.
Claire and I go to gather firewood; away from the group and out of earshot, she makes tentative reference to how strange this all is. I sense a proto-terf, let rip a full stream of gender-critical invective, and the relief is glorious. It’s like a touchstone for reality. She’s already been having her doubts about the ideology, and can recognize odd compulsive behavior from having a diagnosed OCD family member; we compare notes on the weirdness of the trip, and reassure each other that we are not imagining it, that our discomfort is merited, that this is really not normal. It was the trans widow in the documentary that really did it for her; we both feel for that poor woman.
Having a woman ally makes it so much more bearable, but also throws a harsh light on how we’re being used to validate the fetish of this penis-obsessed man. We vow to ditch the rest of the group as soon as we’re able and try to salvage some joy from this bizarre situation we’re currently trapped in.
“We’re being used to validate the fetish of this penis-obsessed man.”
On the final day, Claire and I manage to wangle a shortcut, and beat the group back to town by a few hours. In clean clothes at last, we find a restaurant, fill our faces with pizza and wine, and laugh, and laugh, and laugh. We spot Helga through the window, driving the minibus to a fast food place over the road, and we hide behind the curtains, peering at him through a gap, hoping he won’t spot us. Is he just getting hotdogs for the rest of the group again? No, he’s getting a kebab for himself, because he just seems to subsist on junk food and energy drinks. Where are the others? We don’t care. More wine please!
We befriend the waiter and a German documentary maker at the next table, and regale them with tales of how utterly strange our last few days have been. There are no taxis to take us back to the lodge, so the waiter flags down some boy-racer mates of his in a passing car, who give us a lift. They have a tampon dangling from the rear-view mirror. We stumble back to our rooms, still laughing.
The journey back to the capital is uneventful. Helga greets an old acquaintance at a gas station, and makes a point of telling us how they had previously met—apparently he had told her that he used to be a man (apropos of nothing?), and she had been ever so surprised, much to his delight. Cool story, bro. Just a couple more hours and we never have to hear about your penis ever again. At least this is one holiday where going home is less of a wrench than a relief.
Back home, I’m still walking on those eggshells. My friends hear a heavily redacted version of the tale, where Helga is merely a creepy bloke and an incompetent tour guide. The power of pronouns becomes very apparent—consider the vastly different threat perceptions between “she kept talking about her genitals” and “he kept talking about his.” My friends are in the “be kind” camp, and would have attempted the mental gymnastics to frame this as a strange but harmless woman.
“But what did he say about his penis, exactly?”
“Oh, you know, just finding excuses to mention it all the time…”
I think about how we feminists are popularly assumed to hate trans people, to treat them far worse than we would “cis” men. And yet here I am, playing down my deeply uncomfortable experience, hiding Helga’s trans status in my anecdotes, and watching an entire tour group allow him to get away with dangerously unprofessional behavior on that basis. Even when I wrote a complaint to the company, the penis-talk was only a footnote beside his other incompetencies, rather than the front-and-centre issue it would have been from a regular man.
I think about Grace Lavery, about Owen Hurcum—these men who spend a vastly disproportionate time talking about their parts. I think about the power dynamic, of how Helga used us as a captive audience to talk about and demonstrate his castration fetish, ostentatiously brandishing that she-wee. I think about Jackie, cosying up to the man with the power and pretending to validate his delusions to gain a share of that status for herself. I think about the pall this cast on my first holiday since a year and a half of lockdowns. But mostly I think about how Claire and I escaped, our drunken pizza escapades, and the joy of making a female-only space to laugh about the whole ridiculous business.
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