On dresses, wigs and still being human

15 May

Every time I drag myself away from social media and engage with real human beings, I feel a buzz. With community events over the years, and especially with the Literature – turned Spring – Festival the buzz of attending events is palpable.

Even if, or often especially if, the speaker is not a ‘celebrity’, listening to a person who is knowledgeable and passionate about their subject is almost universally rewarding – heart-warming, brain-stimulating, thought-provoking and fun. I can make a comment or ask a question afterwards. What’s not to like?

No more so was this illustrated than at Sunday night’s event, Ways to be Equally Human. We were privileged to hear two people who, from the start, exuded that they were ‘comfortable in their own skin’ – no pun intended – as one speaker spoke of her alopecia and the other of his ‘cross-dressing’.

Leslie Tate and Sue Hampton, photo © Fernando Bagué

Intelligent, knowledgeable, confident yet caring and sensitive, our two guests, Leslie Tate and Sue Hampton, entranced us with their openness, addressing subjects still generally taboo in UK society.

And yet we could only marvel at Sue’s kindness and common humanity when she spoke to a school about alopecia, knowing that there may only be one pupil with the condition. Sue saw herself as standing alongside that pupil, to break down misunderstanding, unkindness and bullying.

Wouldn’t we like to live in a society that always reaches out like that?

The husband and wife team shared what they learned from their former literal and metaphorical ‘covering up’ and pretending their lives were hunky dory, and, dare I write it, ‘normal’ or free from anxiety: Be yourself. Be true to yourself.

Of course that sounds rational, sensible and healthy but, as probably most of us have found in today’s ‘camera-ready society’ (as another Festival speaker, Heather Widdows, said in her talk on the ‘perfect’ body), society is far from understanding, accepting and welcoming of difference, that ‘difference’ is simply being and we are all unique human beings.

Such is Sue’s self-confidence, she announced that she was not a dancer, but then performed a solo to a song composed for her by a friend. She carried it off like a seasoned trouper, captivating the audience.

Photo © Fernando Bagué.

After the dance we learnt that alopecia is neither an illness or disease and not contagious. Any of us could experience this auto-immune condition. Early on, Sue squared away the usual audience questions. She said she was completely hairless, just like a dolphin. And, in her experience, most people showed empathy and it was rare for people to make harsh remarks.

School teacher Sue’s ephinany came on a windy day when her wig blew off in a crowded schoolboys’ playground.

The sense of relief felt by Sue, after twenty-eight years covering up her baldness, was palpable and I breathed a huge sigh of relief with her. She told us she went ‘Kojak’ (reviewer’s phrase), in other words – bald, confident and strong!

Since the winded wig, Sue has published thirty-two children’s books about society’s outsiders.

Describing himself as a non-binary cross-dressing man, Leslie Tate speaks eloquently about wearing women’s clothes. I quickly forgot he was wearing a dress and listened to his experiences of being pilloried by the press and alcoholism. “I am an alcoholic though I haven’t had a drink for thirty years,” he shared.

As a child, when alone in the house, Leslie used to dress up in his mother’s clothes.

After years of cross-dressing in private and finally going public, the national media ran an exposé for days about lecturer Leslie Tate’s choice of clothes.

On his return to his college job, he felt like two thousand pairs of eyes were staring at him. But when asked by students why he wore women’s clothes, he answered, “Why not?”

Similar to Sue, he spoke of a sense of relief and freedom when began to live as the person he feels he really is. Leslie’s career, among other things, as poet and author, speaker, activist and performer shows that living closer to the real Leslie has not held him back but probably spurred him on to achieving many of his life goals. 

During this moving and open-hearted event, I thought about my own search for peace with the real me.



Words by Tony Hillier. Photos © Fernando Bagué.

Ways to be Equally Human with Sue Hampton and Leslie Tate, was a Swindon Spring Festival event on 12th May, at Swindon Arts Centre.

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