Credit: Neil Hall/STREPA; Francesca Roh/Xtra
Personal Essay
3 min

What Meryl Streep taught me about trans identity and allyship

Streep was there to support and empower women like her, women who’d spent a lifetime sidestepping entitled men. And in me, she saw a man

In 2010, publishing icon Tina Brown founded the Women in the World Summit, dubbed “the premier showcase for women of impact and for the men who champion them.” Six years later, I presented at the New York event on a panel called “Canada’s Shame: The stories of hundreds of murdered and missing women” beside MP Carolyn Bennett, Melina Laboucan-Massimo and Michele Pineault in Manhattan’s Lincoln Centre.

Backstage, the air was electric: this year’s headliner, Meryl Streep, had just finished her closing address and joined all the participants.

Everyone who had presented gathered as production assistants instructed us where to stand; we would all pose onstage for the final photo, with Meryl in the middle. After she gave her rousing speech she joined us as we milled about backstage. Many of the women spoke with her and posed for selfies. I stood chatting with Michele Pineault — the mother of Stephanie Lane, one of the victims in my investigation [into Robert Pickton in BC], with whom I’d been on the panel and who was a huge fan of Meryl Streep. Michele stepped up to Meryl, introduced herself, told her a little of her story, and soon they were posing for a selfie right in front of me. Meryl was generous and attentive and put her arm around Michele’s shoulder for the photo. I felt so happy for Michele, whose life had so much misery in it.

I don’t know what possessed me, but I was suddenly struck by the notion that my parents would want a photo of me and Meryl , even though I wasn’t a selfie person. I greatly admired and respected her film work and activism, but I had never felt a desperate need to interact with celebrities — certainly not to hero worship them or to collect souvenirs from them. I’d lived an oddly Forrest-Gumpian life in that I had met many public figures, but I’d never asked for a photo with anyone. I approached her as she said goodbye to Michele and said, “Ms. Streep, my parents would love it if I sent them a photo of us. Would you mind?”

At first, I thought she hadn’t heard me. She barely glanced my way. Then, as she turned in another direction, I heard her say something to the effect of, “I wouldn’t want to disappoint your parents,” as she and her assistant stepped away through the crowd. I was steamrollered by humiliation and shame as I suddenly realized who she’d seen when she’d looked at me.

She was there to support and empower women like her, women who’d spent a lifetime sidestepping entitled men, powerful men, violent men. She saw a man. In a suit and tie. Fifty years old, short hair, tall-ish. Maybe even pretending the photo was for his parents. In a roomful of women. At a feminist event. For women.

This is who you are now. This is what people see when they look at you. Finally, your outsides match your insides and you need to start acting appropriately. You need to own that and understand what women see when they see you, no matter how much of a supporter of women you are. They won’t know that you lived some version of their reality for fifty years. You need to prove it every single day by the kind of man you are. You may be an ally, but you never belonged — and you don’t belong now.

I desperately wished I could take back those ten seconds, not because I cared what she thought of me, but because I cared what I thought of me.

For the photo, I stood hidden in the back row, only my grey-suited arm and half my face visible. I was so mortified that I’d almost stayed backstage, but I didn’t want to make a fuss, envisioning some production assistant helpfully pushing me out there, thinking I was just resisting because I was shy.

Afterwards, I immediately met my good friend Sandy Garossino in the lobby, who had travelled to New York from Vancouver to attend the conference as my plus one. Sandy had accepted the news of my transition easily and wholeheartedly, expressing sadness only at what she wistfully referred to as losing me from “Team Estrogen,” as I retreated from charter to honorary member. I was too ashamed to even tell her of my failed interaction with Meryl Streep. We walked through Central Park to the Upper East Side and spent the rest of the afternoon in the Guggenheim, mesmerized by the compelling works of art while I contemplated my future as a wannabe good man.

From the book This One Looks Like a Boy, © 2019, by Lorimer Shenher. To be published in March, 2019 by Greystone Books Ltd. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.