Nina Arsenault doesn’t have a kitchen in her bachelor apartment in Toronto’s gay village. She convinced her landlord to gut the kitchen area and build a walk-in closet. Forgoing the ability to cook in favour of making room for her expansive wardrobe is not only a matter of practicality for the transsexual writer and performer, it is also an expression of the kind of woman she wants to be. “As a child I never had dreams of being a domestic woman who cooks and cleans,” says Arsenault, laughing. “The choice to turn my kitchen into a closet is definitely symbolic of the kind of beautiful, sexy, fashionable woman I always wanted to be. My dad is coming by later today to install new dress racks.”
Becoming the woman she is today is the subject of The Silicone Diaries, Arsenault’s solo show opening at The Cultch on Feb 14. Originally commissioned by the Saint John Theatre in New Brunswick, the play is based on a series of autobiographical columns she wrote for Xtra’s Toronto sister magazine fab about her experience transitioning, undergoing 60 surgeries and working in the sex industry to pay for them.
The play opens in the Golden Horseshoe Trailer Park of Beamsville, Ontario, where a very young Arsenault looks at a stack of Penthouse magazines with a group of local boys. The images of women with long lashes, dramatic eye makeup and “the biggest hair I have ever seen” provided a contrast to the daily expressions of beauty Arsenault saw in the trailer park.
At age six, Arsenault already had strong female inclinations and was often mistaken for a girl. She was even introduced to the concept of transitioning by her male babysitter, who once told her she could go see a special doctor in Sweden and come back female. “Why he thought you had to go to Sweden to get a sex change I’m not sure,” Arsenault says. “He also told me if I decided to do it to never tell my father because no father wants to hear that.”
Arsenault came out as gay to her family at 17 and left home nine months later to attend York University’s theatre program. “At that age I just assumed that all gay men wanted to be women,” she says. “I thought when I moved to the city I would meet other gay men who felt the way that I did.” She dabbled briefly with drag but never felt entirely comfortable with it. “Because I didn’t look feminine my approach to drag was really theatrical and over-the-top,” she says. “I would wear flower petals as my eyelashes or go to a club in roller skates and a blonde Afro wig.”
Eventually Arsenault realized that drag wasn’t enough. “There was one night I couldn’t sleep and I thought I was having a nervous breakdown,” she says. “I realized that night I couldn’t go on living as a man and I had to transition.”
Her night of truth happened in August 1996, a few months after two trans prostitutes were murdered in Toronto. “I was living in that neighbourhood at the time, and those murders left me feeling like it was really dangerous to be trans,” she says. “I thought if I looked more feminine, if I was beautiful, I would be safer.”
At this point Arsenault was getting ready to move to South Africa for graduate school and planned to begin transitioning when she returned to Canada. After finally getting up the courage to tell her parents about her decision, she made the 90-minute drive to Smithville to pay them a surprise visit. “When I first tried to tell them I couldn’t say it,” she says. “I was crying and they were asking me what was wrong. They asked if I was addicted to drugs, if I was in trouble with the law, if I had HIV. Finally my dad just asked if I wanted to have a sex change and I said yes. And the first thing he said was, ‘Don’t worry about what people will say. We’re just going to make sure you get the best doctors possible.’”
Arsenault knew she needed a way to make a lot of money quickly to pay for all her surgeries and, like a lot of other trans women in the same situation, decided to enter the sex industry. She worked at various points as a stripper, both on stage and on the web, and worked as a prostitute from her apartment. While the cash came quickly (her combined surgeries total around $200,000), Arsenault wasn’t just in the business for the money. “The sex business was a safe place for me to work because I didn’t encounter the same kind of transphobia I experienced other places,” she says. “That’s not to say that it wasn’t a difficult job, though. I don’t think it’s healthy to have sex with that many people in a day.”
Arsenault worked as much as possible over the next several years and saved money for her surgeries, travelling regularly to locations in the US and Mexico, where much of the work was done. Of all her cosmetic procedures the only ones that get discussed in The Silicone Diaries (perhaps fittingly) are the silicone injections she used to achieve her curvaceous hips and ass. The procedure, which is illegal in North America and is often performed in hotel rooms, involves injecting liquid silicone directly into the muscle tissue to change the contours of the body.
“Some transsexuals were angry when I spoke publicly about silicone injections in my fab column,” Arsenault says. “I think they didn’t want people to know how we got these female bodies.” Arsenault did months of research before opting for the procedure, talking to doctors and transsexuals across the continent. “I want to be clear because it’s a touchy subject,” she says. “This is my body and I have the right to do what I want with it. I have the right to make choices that will make me happy. People do things all the time that are risky.”
Some people have also been critical of Arsenault’s choices in the physical appearance she’s created. Her big hair and large breasts can attract a fair amount of attention. More than once she’s had people on the street (usually cis women) comment that her appearance is “degrading to women.”
“A lot of people have told me that the type of woman I want to be is not a real woman,” she says. “Why do I have to be someone’s idea of what a woman should be? Can’t I just be what I want to be? I don’t want to be more boring so I can fit it.
“I decided that, even though I feel I’m a woman inside, I don’t have to try to emulate or reproduce a middle-class heteronormative idea of what a woman is supposed to be. I do not think I’m a ‘normal’ woman who was trapped in a male body — that I’d be just like other women if I had a sex change. That cultural sound-bite doesn’t begin to encompass the complexity of my experience. My experience of growing up queer, inside a male body, socialized as a male, living with male privilege for 20 years, has made me who I am. I like being queer and I like having a queer aesthetic, which I’ve absorbed and reinterpreted from heterosexual desire. Being unique and different makes my life very challenging sometimes, but if I’m going to be true to myself I don’t see any way around it.”
Below see a video interview by Elvira Kurt talking with Arsenault about her surgical transformation and gender identity.