We’d arranged to meet at Picabar, but when I arrived he was standing outside looking like he’d been there for an age.
“Looks like it’s closed for renovations,” he said as we peered through the window into the derelict looking venue.
“It was closing down for good, a while ago,” I said.
I looked him up and down as we stood in the street wondering what to do next. He was the very picture of a man, which made me feel on edge. We’d both been closed for renovations at various stages during our lives, but it felt to me like his had taken far better than mine. Fortunately, it’s not all about looks.
At his core, Phan is fundamentally two things, neither of which were of his choosing. He is male and he is a singer and musician. These are as essential to his existence as breathing and the cruelty of having one diminish the other cannot be underestimated.
When we’d found our way to a table upstairs at the Brass Monkey I was feeling a bit less…less, and he showed me where his eyelashes still curled, the Achilles heel in his burgeoning masculinity. I leant in close, but I couldn’t see it. If anything, mine have more of a curl than his and I told him so. We laughed and felt a bit better about ourselves. Relaxed into it.
I’d been nervous from before the start. Trans men are rarer and more exotic creatures than trans women and, besides, when you were born with all that, why would you want to give it up? I’d promised myself I wouldn’t ask about that, but I did because I have this mouth and it inevitably says the things that need to be said that I don’t want to be the one to say. At least I left it until we’d gotten to know each other a bit, but still. It was OK, though, he just fired right back, “Why would you?” and, of course he was as right as I was wrong and vice versa. Also, trans men have always been here in equal numbers, they just haven’t quite become the media trope that trans women are. No wonder cis people get all uptight and confused about us trans people. I mean, imagine going through all that just so you can win at sport and go to a different toilet with nothing but sex crimes on your mind.
The thing with trans people is we can tend to flock together because of that sort of egregiously stupid (il)logic. It makes sense for us to huddle against an increasingly hostile world, but when you stop to think about it, it makes no sense at all. So, I was relieved that, when we parted company, I found I genuinely liked Archie Phan. We have a lot in common:
- We’re survivors of less-than-ideal childhoods, although growing up in Carnarvon, his was more about geography and cultural isolation than anything else.
- We’re list makers, him inveterate, me only so I can tick things off when I’m feeling overwhelmed.
- We’re teachers, him currently, me in the distant past before the smartphone was invented, but it’s always in the blood and I recalled well his sense of being beset by an unassuageable tide of things that needed to be done — hence his lists.
- We love music, he writes songs and plays, I’m a fan.
Except, at the moment of our meeting, all those lists were getting in the way of Phan’s creation. He showed me the app on his phone where he kept them, they were long and detailed. I would have needed another list just to keep up with the lists and I quietly thanked whoever arranged the universe that they made it so I grew up mostly in the age of the luddite.
Then he told me everything he needed to do before he could start making music again.
“But I’m going to do it,” he told me, “I just have to get all these things cleared first.”
I paused for a really long time because I could feel my mouth wanting to say something else I knew I really shouldn’t be saying. And then I said it, anyway.
“That sounds like an excuse to me.”
I half expected him to lean across the table and punch me on the nose — after all he is a bloke — but he managed to restrain himself.
“Yeah, you’re probably right,” he ended up saying.
Then, Phan told me about his other creative endeavours, starting with his teaching, which focuses on the flipped classroom and student-led pedagogy. As an approach to supporting learning, it’s something that a lot of teachers talk about but few ever achieve, because it’s bloody hard work and it feels risky to give students all that power. He told me about the Let’s Be Perfectly Queer podcast that he produces with his partner — activism, new media and high creative load including writing and recording spoken word content and…music.
“Ah ha!” I said, “So you are still creating music.”
“Well, yes,” he said.
After that, we were back to the vagaries of gender transition and, for Phan, the impact that testosterone has had on his voice.
“It’s made it hard for me to be confident about my vocals,” he said, “Over time, my voice has changed and I’ve had to try to figure out if I can even sing anymore. And then there’s transposing things into different keys. It’s been difficult.”
That’s one of the things about gender transition, for every plus it brings there is the almost inevitable subtraction. At his core, Phan is fundamentally two things, neither of which were of his choosing. He is male and he is a singer and musician. These are as essential to his existence as breathing and the cruelty of having one diminish the other cannot be underestimated. I asked Phan if he had known would he have taken a different path. His answer was swift and definitive, the most certainty he’d displayed at any point during our conversation.
“No, never,” he said, “This is who I am.”
As for his voice, Phan seems to be coming through the uncertainty, the retooling and the rebuilding of his self concept.
“Just use a capo,” I said when he talked about the difficulty of transposing songs.
Phan smiled at me generously, we both knew I was off the mark, but we also both knew that he was adding just one more thing to the list that would enable him to avoid dealing with the part of his transition where his gender intersects with his musicianship. When we’d finished up, I felt like he was almost there.
“Maybe stop making lists?” I suggested helpfully, “Get out there and play your songs again, finish that EP.”
“Yeah, I could,” said Phan, “I will. I’m going to make the time. Being a musician is part of me, too. I was never going to stop for ever.”
Post our meeting, Phan played his first live show in years.
“It was thrilling to get up on stage in front of an audience again,” Phan said, “Lots of fun. I definitely missed the rush.”
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