For those of you too young to remember, “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” is a 1994 Australian movie, starring Hugo Weaving, Guy Pearce and Terrence Stamp. It involves two drag-queens (Anthony/Mitzi and Adam/Felicia) and a transexual (Bernadette) who are contracted to perform a drag show at a resort in Alice Springs, a town in the remote Australian desert. They head west from Sydney aboard their huge bus, called “Priscilla”. En route, it is discovered that the woman they have contracted to do the work with is Anthony's wife. The bus breaks down in the middle of the desert and gets repaired by a salt-of-the-earth type called Bob, who travels on with them. We decided to watch it last night, with our children, aged 7 and 8– one of whom has, since a very young age, shown a serious interest in cross-dressing.
Now, immediately, there were some issues. Firstly, the movie far from clean in its language. Secondly, it deals with cross-dressing as a major theme. And thirdly, some of the situations these drag queens get themselves into could have proved themselves a little difficult to explain to a child. So then why did we do it, and how did we justify doing it?
Firstly, we dealt with the swearing. Both the children know words like “Fuck” and “Shit”. (It is not unknown for me to use them myself – but I certainly do so only by mistake in front of the children. And we frown upon others who might not have children and not be practised in the art of avoidance of words like these in normal conversation). Both children have demonstrated to us that they are aware of words such as these and we do not allow them in the house at all.
On the issue of cross-dressing – well, this is an issue we had had to face in the life of one of the children from his earliest years. Neither my partner, nor I cross-dress. Nor do we have any men friends who do so - (with women, it is sometimes a bit hard to tell whether the cross dressing “line” has been crossed or not).
But our child has just always done it! He would twist a T-shirt into a boob-tube. He would turn anything available into a skirt. One Christmas a friend gave him a wig, which we could almost never get him out of. It got so serious that, at one point I called a sexologist for advice. She listened to the story and said, firstly, that counselling could not start until the age of 9, and that gender reassignment (if that was the outcome of it all) was not possible until after the age of 20. (At this point, I was hyperventilating!). And that (and here was the real nub of the matter) perhaps I “should just get used to the idea that I might be living with a transgendered person”.
Our response to his cross-dressing has always been neither to encourage it, nor to show disapproval. We have simply allowed him to do it, if he wants to, in the home. I note that it seems as though social pressure outside the home (such as the school, for instance) may well have made him stop the behaviour. Because, at the moment, I can see that what used to be an almost daily occurrence, has now virtually disappeared.
Then why would we want him to see things like Priscilla? Do we not stand the risk of reinforcing a behaviour that is now apparently, a thing of the past? We don’t think so. But we did manage the process and intervene on several occasions to explain what was going on in the movie.
Both children watched it through to the end, and both said that they enjoyed it. When the younger one asked why “those men are wearing girls clothes” (despite that fact that he has grown up with his brother doing it all the time), we explained that that is what some men wanted to do. It made them feel good and it made them like themselves. And that it really doesn’t matter what people choose to wear.
That settled, the movie continued and we laughed at the funny bits and felt sad at the sad bits. When the trans-sexual (Bernadette) confronted a bigot who was threatening her, our eldest said “she’s gonna beat him up!” And she sure did, much to everyone’s great enjoyment.
As for “Priscilla” itself – it was a bit strange to be taken back into a world where neither cell phones, nor computers were anywhere evident. And the issues which came up in the movie, many of them, demonstrated how much further we are all conceptually. For instance, they have obscenities painted on their bus, which link them to AIDS. No-one in their right mind would necessarily put the two together anymore. Similarly, the issue of being in gender transition seems to be much less of an issue today than it was then.
Or maybe not. Maybe it is just me that has grown a bit older and a bit wiser. Whatever the case, we want to create a home environment where our children can know that nothing they choose to wear, and nothing that they authentically are, will ever put them outside of our love.