Author Archives: Sheila Gilhooly

About Sheila Gilhooly

I'm a 60ish life-long butch lesbian. Raised in the conservative milieu of Canada's capital, I came out in 1969. After an unhappy stint in the nuthouse, where I was committed when the counsellor at my catholic college learned I was a lesbian and, worse, didn't want to change, I found the heady and redemptive days of 70s feminism, where politics ended where sex began and vice versa. Like what seemed like the entire Ottawa lesbian feminist cadre, I moved to Vancouver in 1981. With Persimmon Blackbridge, I did Still Sane, a sculpture project and later a book about my experience as a lesbian in the nuthouse—sadly common in those days when being queer was listed as a psychosis in the DSM (psychiatrists' bible). I've been published in feminist periodicals, including Sinister Wisdom; and have just finished my second book, Mistaken Identity, about my experience being (mis)taken as a man.

Which Son Are You?

suit 2

suit 2

My relationship with my family changed at my father’s funeral. His wake and funeral were the first all-out extended family things I had been at in at least 15 years.

strip.pngThat last family get-together was Aunt TeeTee’s wedding. I liked her a lot–she was kind to me during the awkward teen years, and it was my first wedding. All was going okay, the typical milling and chatting of a family gathering.

It was seriously marred by a long lost cousin coming up to me and my dad and asking, “Hello, Pat, which one of your lads is this?” I will never forget the look of horror and humiliation on my father’s face, and he was speechless, frozen in this mask of mortification, ears glowing red, his own special “tell” that we liked to tease him about.

I quickly stammered “It’s me, Sheila,” spreading the shame to include the cousin.

I don’t remember anything else about that event, but I know I was never allowed at a big gathering again.

Four weddings came and went, though there was some attempt at negotiation when my first sister got married. The deal was, if I would clad my very butch self in a dress, I could attend.

They would buy the dress, have it made, anything, as long as it was a dress. I did assure them that I had a nice outfit and wasn’t planning to wear jeans and a T-shirt, or make some protest about marriage, though my feminist zeal had no use for such rituals and my lesbian self thought she was never going to get that choice, so all in all it gave me a pretty “fuck it!!” attitude toward marriage. But I still had a sense of family duty and belonging and was willing to go to a day-long drag that I knew I would hate.

But I wasn’t willing to wear a dress.

The back and forth went on for weeks, them not believing that I wouldn’t ultimately cave and wear the dress, and me not really believing that they were going to dis-invite me if I didn’t.

Years after that, my partner and I were invited to my youngest brother’s wedding. I was closest to him and he had always scorned the dress codes of the earlier family weddings.

I remember being so pathetically thrilled. We told everyone and I decided to buy a new suit. Then my brother called and said, “Maybe it would be better if you don’t come to the wedding.” He said it nicely and seemed to feel bad about it, but didn’t really explain and I just wanted to get off the phone so didn’t ask any questions.

When my mom called I didn’t pick up the phone though I could hear her pleading with me to speak to her. I’d never done that to my mom before but I just couldn’t.

It wasn’t till later I found out it was my “on-his-last-legs-with-cancer” dad who had insisted we not come. Their loyalty to Dad included not only doing what he wanted, but not even letting me know how it all went down. It was a friend of my mom’s who told me. Nobody else ever mentioned it.

There were always dinners with my sibs and their kids, and it’s not like my dad was mean to me, and he enjoyed my humour, but only en famille.

He didn’t not like me exactly, but he was seriously embarrassed, and had been since I started my period and didn’t grow out of being a tomboy. My coming out as a lesbian probably confirmed his worst suspicions and my being locked up for it gave me and lesbianism a very special place in the family, that nobody else wanted to belong to.

While I still lived in Ottawa I went for dinner regularly, but not often. I brought my most muted self to the table. It’s not that I didn’t chat and make nice, and I even made myself say the word lesbian once in a while. Nobody complained, they just all stiffened and never asked the next question.

strip.pngSo there we all were in the limo, heading to the graveyard, all five of us kids and my mom, a long drive to the other side of the city. We were all a bit giddy and somebody said something about my dad’s Canadian Tire money, which was a considerable stash that he was so proud of. I said it thought I should get it as every one knew that lesbians had a special spiritual connection to Canadian Tire–I always saw them in there.

The car erupted in riotous laughter. Then my brother, who I was never close to, said, “I don’t know Sheil, Dad was kind of traditional–I’m sure he’d want his oldest son to have it.”

And more riotous laughter ! It was a typical family-style wisecrack, but for me, a novel sensation. My first lesbian joke with my family where nobody went stiff, where they even responded and laughed, a heady moment on the way to Notre Dame Cemetery.

For the last 20 years, I have brought up the subject of queers whenever I can, and joke at will. My current favorite witticism is that we have gone from “the love that dare not speak it’s name” to one which will not shut up, and it always gets a laugh, a smug “in the loop” laugh because they now know who Oscar Wilde is.

The weddings all resulted in children in good old Irish-Catholic style, and three of the nieces have married so far. My partner and I have been invited to all the weddings and are treated more like celebs than skunks at a garden party.

My mother is 92 and lives in assisted living now. On one of my visits, as we waited for the elevator, one of my mom’s pals came along and said, “Hello Susan, which one of your sons is this?”

Talk about a flashback! A second of dread-filled memory, and a regret at doing anything to make her life harder, or feel less comfy in this new place, and so on.

Meanwhile my mom was saying, with a very easy laugh, “No, this is my daughter Sheila,” …slight pause… “She’s from Vancouver.” We all share a knowing little laugh and get on the elevator, which has arrived.

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Jenny Horsman for TEDx Toronto

I admire this woman’s incredible commitment to education.

Working in Adult Literacy

Jenny Horsman Jenny Horsman

My friend and colleague, Jenny Horsman, is applying to give a talk at TEDx Toronto.

I have often referred to her work on the impacts of violence on learning, and wrote a post about her website which is full of information and resources on the topic. I know that many students in adult literacy, adult basic education, or GED programs struggle with learning because of their past or current experiences of violence.

I have always found Jenny’s research about the violence/learning connection useful, and her specific strategies for helping students learn and learn to learn in the aftermath of violence are practical and imaginative.

So I was excited to learn that she was applying to be a speaker at TEDx Toronto. I hope that readers of this blog will lend their support by nominating her to be a speaker.

Perhaps you have heard her speak, or read her work, or visited…

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Here We Go Again…

Sheila 1As I walked into the washroom, I was talking on the phone with barbara. I was so relieved to be back in Vancouver. It was hard being in Ottawa, where I was never, ever identified as a woman.

Fortunately I had no occasion to be using washrooms so it only came up in the constant “sir,” “man,” “pal,” and even one “dude!” that followed every interaction, no matter how brief. It was wearying mostly since, as I said, they weren’t occasions where I really had to correct the person.

One day, I helped an old lady with a walker who was trying to reach something in the store. Her gratitude and obvious surprise went with a rave about what a gentleman I was. I really hated giving them such an undeserved good name, but nor did I want to make her feel stupid as part of my favour. And I didn’t want her to suddenly turn on me, not like she had that vibe about her, but I find, after all these years of pretty consistent mistaken identity, I still can’t always tell how they will react to having made that mistake.

So I’m heading into the women’s washroom in the Vancouver airport, phone in my ear, looking just like about half the travellers, feeling so at home and glad to be here and so like I belong I don’t even look  around as I enter the washroom and I hardly hear the “Hey, wait. Stop !!” or feel the kerfuffle behind me.

A woman grabs my arm and wheels me around and says, “You’re in the wrong washroom. This is the women’s,” just to be perfectly clear. She’s pretty pleasant about it really—perky and indulgent all in the same breath. Silly man, right ? I’ve noticed that women are nicer to me while they are still thinking I’m a man, disconcerted but “nice” about it.

The women in the washroom, or going into the washroom, stop or turn to hear me say, “I’m not a man. I’m a woman and I’m not in the wrong washroom.” (Being very thorough and clear myself .)

At the sound of my voice, the rest of the gang jerks to a stare. My challenger recoils and mutters, “Oh, sorry,” but she looks angry, not sorry. The stares of the others stay fixed and wary with disbelief.

I see an empty cubicle and head for it. When I exit, moments later, they are all still there, arranged in a hostile phalanx of maybe ten women and girls (girls shrinking behind their mothers…classic !) “I’m not a man,” I say again as I exit, scanning the whole row to make eye contact, but they don’t let that happen, though they keep on staring toward me.

I’m tempted to flash my breasts at them, but the presence of children makes me afraid I’ll be seen as more of a pervert and maybe it would be legal abuse or endangerment. Really I don’t want to freak these little girls, who have already been terrorized by their mothers, though I know everyone else thinks it was me who scared them.

I quickly wash and dry my hands and head out of the washroom, no longer bothering to try and make eye contact. I am shaken.  I’ve experienced this orchestrated exclusion in other washrooms but not so much for years. These days, women still blame me for their mistake, but their inclination is to at least see it as THEIR mistake in the end and not a deliberate trick on my part to threaten them.

Why the change?

Maybe there are more of us “have to look twice” types. Transgender visibility and their victories of inclusion have made my life so much easier and less defensive. Mistaken Identity still happens—I correct nicely—they apologize—I am gracious and see it as a “teachable moment” and it’s no big deal. So this experience was a throw-back. And in Vancouver! not even awful old straight-laced Ottawa.

related: Gender Games

When gender and sex identity is up for discussion at Walgreens

This is a great piece and I can totally relate plus laughed out loud several times. I have found a soul-mate in the dance of gender.
Check it out.

Writing Humbuggery

I took a trip to my friendly neighborhood Walgreens tonight for a few necessities: antibacterial soap for my new tattoo, deodorant and a variety pack of tampons. I took my goods to the cashier and enter my phone number in the hopes of saving some pennies on my purchase. Naturally, my name pops up on the screen, seen by the guy behind the register.

“You’re not Catherine.”

“Yeah I am. You wanna see my ID?”

“No. But you’re [mumble] [mumble] Catherine [mumble]  not….[something] [something].”

And then he mumbled some more stuff, which I promptly ignored as I swiped my card. I was unfazed. I am used to people being unwilling to accept that I am female.

This was merely a blip in a long line of stories I’ve got that challenge what people think is “female.” And it wasn’t the only time it happened at a Walgreens.

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A Strong Sister

I was horrified to read this story out of Montreal–horrified because this woman, Tomee Sojourner, was really put through the wringer and humiliated, and yet vindicated that I’m not the only one this happens to. She was really strong–she corrected the judge every time, and I know how hard that is to do. From that, I knew her mettle.

 

Woman complains after rental judge refers to her as a man  http://www.cjad.com/CJADLocalNews/entry.aspx?BlogEntryID=10561711 

The Launch

I just had to share this recent blog by Kate Nonesuch about the launch
of “Mistaken Identity”. Her description so perfectly describes the
great pride and joy and vindication it gave me. And that feeling has
persisted with every response to my blog and every new thing I’ve
learned along the way. My editor/publisher Kate, learned what she
needed about design and e-books, twitter, finding links etc. and
has let me learn as little or as much as I want at a speed that works
for me. Making it all a discovery rather than a dread. My new-found
pride in my skills and competence runs nicely parallel to the
confidence I’m coming to enjoy about how I look and how I sound and
who I am.

Working in Adult Literacy

Sheila Gilhooly Mistaken IdentityThe launch is a big day in the life of any book. It is the day when the art made out of life goes out into the world to see what its reception will be.

Mistaken Identity started as a small project to print Sheila’s stories for a small group of friends. barbara had 60 copies printed. (The list had grown from the original 20 we had planned for.)

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Patted Down

When barbara and I went to Ottawa last month, to visit my mom, we had to fly, it being the only way to get there. Airport security has always been a bit tense for me, though picture I.D. has saved me from questions like: “Who’s identification is this and where did you get it?” or comments like: “It is illegal to use another person’s identification.” It’s better since, when push comes to shove, my I.D. does match how I look. But we never get to that point without several rounds of “SIR” which I feel I have to correct because it’s airport security and I try not to look like I’m trying to trick anybody. Continue reading