Becoming Drusilla

by Chris Bertram on May 19, 2008

I first became aware of Dru because she was a member of the Bristol Flickr group, and I was looking to buy a camera. What better way of deciding than to look through other people’s photos, and see what the ones I liked were taken with? So there was Dru, a slightly mumsy, middle-aged woman with a young daughter and a Morris Traveller. In other words, extrapolating from the various signifiers, I’d formed an impression of what Dru must be like. Then I met her, at one of our monthly get-togethers, in the Royal Naval Volunteer. And then she spoke. “Bloodly hell!” I thought to myself, “you’re a bloke … or used to be.” A very quick update of my mental image of Dru took place.

It isn’t very often that people I know have their biography published. In fact, through not paying attention again, I’d failed to notice that Dru’s was coming out. Only when a friend send me “a link to the Guardian”:,,2275803,00.html , with the question “Is this Flickr Dru?” did I catch on. Well, “Becoming Drusilla”: isn’t so much a biography as the record of a friendship, and what happens to it when one of the parties announces their desire to change sex.

Novelist “Richard Beard”: is an old friend of Dru’s, and together they’d been walking, camping, drinking together. It all came as a bit of a shock to Richard, a shock well captured in the book’s opening lines:

bq. The first time I saw Dru in pearl earrings, I coughed and pretended nothing had changed. Then I made a big effort not to say what I was thinking – you are a 43-year-old man whose wife has just left you for another bloke, taking your daughter with her. You drink lunchtime pints of Smile’s Old Tosser and you work in the engine room of a 7,000-tonne passenger ship. You are not a woman.

Becoming Drusilla records Richard and Dru’s trek through Wales. This time, though, Dru is female. And Richard has to come to terms with his friend being other than he thought, and with his own struggles with himself and with the perceptions of others: sympathetic, hostile and indifferent. Along the way we get Dru’s story: a thwarted ambition to be a fighter pilot, a career at sea, drugs and failed relationships, an English degree at Bristol. (Dru arrived the same time as I did, we must have crossed paths, unknowingly, often). Richard’s attempt to understand involves research: interviewing Mr Bellringer, gender-reassignment surgeon and occasional prop-forward; reading other transexual life-stories (incuding Deidre McCloskey). But precedents only takes him so far, because the standard narrative of being trapped with the wrong identity and the achieving a moment of liberation doesn’t seem to fit very well. In the end, what seems to matter most is Dru’s particularity rather than fitting her to type.

All this is, of course, by way of a recommendation. “Becoming Drusilla”: is a superb book, written in terrific style, sometimes really funny, often moving. Treat yourself to a copy.

(Oh, and Dru “has a blog”: too.)



mikesdak 05.19.08 at 11:23 pm

This reminded me of a recent New York Times article discussing the uncertain status of marriages in which one of the partners had changed gender.

It occurred to me that, assuming the couple in the article continues to have a sex life, the woman involved would have had to change her sexual preference. Imagine having to make that decision, then explaining it to your heterosexual friends.


dutchmarbel 05.20.08 at 8:04 am

You don’t even need a transgendered person to be faced with that problem. I know someone who, as a heterosexual woman, fell in love with another woman. They have been together for years, really really love each other, but that area is definately a ‘problem zone’ in the relationship.


Dave 05.20.08 at 2:08 pm

“as a heterosexual woman, fell in love with another woman.” I take it you mean ‘fell in love’ in some romantic/platonic sense that means she doesn’t feel any physical desire for her? Otherwise, not to be cruel, she’s just a lesbian/bisexual in denial. If the platonic version IS the case, frankly, that’s even harder to grasp – because what does ‘fall in love’ MEAN in a case like that?

And what of the second woman, who loves her back, is she a lesbian trapped in love with someone who doesn’t reciprocate her desire? Are these people making themselves unhappy simply out of an unwillingness to follow their connections to their sensual conclusions? Why? How can a person, barring some actual physical impediment, be ‘in love’ without at least contemplating its physical expression, at some level?

I do so hate prurience, but if you’re going to throw out examples like that you REALLY have to provide explanatory details…


dutchmarbel 05.20.08 at 3:34 pm

Second was was lesbian, first one wasn’t. Falling in love, with romance but also with butterflies when someone is near and close. They’ve been together for more than 10 years now.

I’ve not asked all the details, it came up in one of those ‘close group of women’ conversations about how important sex is for a relationship.


Watson Aname 05.20.08 at 4:18 pm

dutchmarbel, do you mean “Second was a lesbian, first didn’t think of herself as one?”. I don’t think it is very unusual for bisexuals to have an unexpected relationship develop that forces you re-examine your sexuality.


noen 05.20.08 at 4:46 pm

I believe that humans are by nature bisexual, mostly. The rest is a thin candy colored shell. It looks pretty but doesn’t really seem to add much.

It’s kind of odd you know, to think that words determine you rather than the other way around. Is she a lesbian or not? Is she merely in denial? Ah, no, it would seem to me that she simply has other priorities that rank higher than someone’s label for her. Straight men who fall in love with transwomen have this same issue. Am I gay or straight? It’s useless speculation in my opinion. Your just one human falling in love with another. Just like all the rest.

In the end, what seems to matter most is Dru’s particularity rather than fitting her to type.

But people aren’t “types”, that’s why the standard narrative doesn’t fit. It never does for anyone. People are just different. I don’t believe that we fall into “types”.


Dave 05.20.08 at 7:03 pm

Hey, I’m not labelling, I’m just pointing out that a woman can’t be ‘heterosexual’ and in a relationship with another woman that involves ‘falling in love’ unless either language or the patience of one party is being wrung out rather thin at some point…

I understand it’s perfectly possible to live in a non-sexual loving relationship – it’s perfectly possible to live in any imaginable combination of genital geometries and affective liaisons – but I didn’t start the use of the word ‘heterosexual’ in this example.


Dave 05.20.08 at 7:07 pm

Meanwhile, OTOH, I think you’ll find a lot of people definitely do fall into ‘types’; not least, for example, the quite large group of men who find women sexually arousing without feeling similarly about men. I mean, I know it’s shocking to admit it in this day and age, but heterosexuality does exist, you know! I’m just not sure it applies to our friend above, who I hope never finds out we’re taking her life-experience in vain…


noen 05.20.08 at 7:59 pm

Actually, I think it is possible for a hetero woman to fall in love with a lesbian woman and for them have a fulfilling relationship. Why? Because I don’t think that people are defined by or encapsulated by words. It’s the other way around. Words and definitions, including mathematics, are the tools we use to describe a larger reality.

I think you’ll find a lot of people definitely do fall into ‘types’

I rather doubt that. What I do think I will find is that there are descriptions of human behavior that can be sorted and ordered. Neither heterosexuality nor homosexuality as such exist. There is no such thing. These words describe behavior, not existing objects.

BTW, thanks for this post on Drusilla.


novakant 05.20.08 at 9:06 pm

I believe that humans are by nature bisexual, mostly. The rest is a thin candy colored shell.

It seems you haven’t met a lot of gay men ;).


dutchmarbel 05.20.08 at 9:35 pm

Dave, do you mean that you don’t think someone can fall in love without wanting to have sex?

I, as I said, haven’t inquired into all details, but she’d fancy guys, not girls, when we admired attractive people. I know people who didn’t realize they were gay till late in life, I know plenty of people who have always known they were gay and I know at least two couples where one party didn’t know they were homo- or bisexual till they fell in love with a person of their own gender.

With the latter two I never talked about sexual attraction, so I can’t judge. With the example I mentioned I did and it always struck me as really nice that people can actually fall ‘in love’ with a person, not ‘in lust’. There are more couples where sexual attraction can’t have played a real big role – and we probabely all have seen relationships where there was not much left once the sexual attraction wore out.


richard 05.20.08 at 11:10 pm

she’s just a lesbian/bisexual in denial.
There’s a large literature on this, now, much of it much less prescriptive, binary and absolute than this view, which quite a few people find offensive.


seth edenbaum 05.20.08 at 11:11 pm

“It seems you haven’t met a lot of gay men”
He hasn’t met a lot of heterosexuals either, and neither have I.
Ideological sexuality is as problematic as ideological politics.
Drag is the sincerest form of flattery, and as reactionary as haute couture.

None of this is meant as a comment about Dru, who seems to be more a person than a preference. Normalcy comes in many forms.


noen 05.20.08 at 11:52 pm

It seems you haven’t met a lot of gay men ;)

What was that study awhile back about gay men and lesbian women having sex? Wasn’t that something like %15? I remember the reaction in the GLBT community was “Whaaa? How can that be?” That’s what I mean about letting words and concepts define who you are. And I can tell you from personal experience as a GLBT person, ya’ll ain’t as straight as you like to think you are. You may talk a good game in public but when the lights are out…. my oh my.


Bruce Baugh 05.21.08 at 1:36 am

Much more useful than the “gay/bisexual in denial” approach, I think, is one that takes overall orientation as a generalization to which there may be exceptions. There can be a lot of things about a specific person and one’s love for and desire of them that don’t translate into wider wishes or needs.


novakant 05.21.08 at 9:03 am

What was that study awhile back about gay men and lesbian women having sex? Wasn’t that something like %15?

Well, that still leaves 85% of gays and lesbians who have a clear sexual preference and a 15% rate of bisexuals or people just being a little adventurous, flexible or confused doesn’t strike me as that outrageous. And I’m not saying that such a preference is totally set in stone, after all it’s not going to kill you to have sex with somebody not fitting your sexual orientation and stranger things have happened after a couple of pints. But from my experience the sexual orientation of gay men is very pronounced, which is why we correctly label them and they label themselves as gay. Things seem to be a bit more fluid with lesbians.


dutchmarbel 05.21.08 at 12:36 pm

Things seem to be a bit more fluid with lesbians.

I dunno. The “I always knew it” lesbians (can we still call them that? Wasn’t there a Greek courtcase? ;) ) I know are on the whole pretty fixed in their sexual preference. The ones who found out later are seem to be more fluid but I’m not sure wether that is because they *are* less rigid in their preference or wether they were in denial before. Even in a gay-friendly country it is still a deviation from the norm to be homosexual, and many people don’t like to be too different.

But maybe it *is* a male/female thing? I’ve heard about couples that stayed a couple after he became female, thus becoming a female/female couple. I even heard about couples where both partners were transgendered females (mayor of Cambridge). But are there also couples that stayed a couple after she became male?


seth edenbaum 05.21.08 at 2:19 pm

Nobody is as straight/gay as they imagine. There’s a layer of anxiety or politics over the issue that most people never overcome, and that may be stronger for men then for women. Ideological labels are comforting. And sexual like political militance is a reaction to perpetual insult. Preference for one over another may be most common but preference is only that, and not exclusivity.


Dru 05.21.08 at 3:05 pm

I’d agree with Seth’s posit that nobody is as straight or gay as they imagine; there was the study cited here which seems to indicate that homophobic males are in denial over their own homosexual nature. It accords with my own experience of transphobia, where the rabid hostility shown me by some colleagues suggested there was something inside themselves that they didn’t want to confront….

For me, prior to transitioning, I very much didn’t want to be seen as a gay man; in part, perhaps, because I simply didn’t like being seen as a man, full stop. Now, some way along the line, and with my own self-loathing gone, I am more comfortable with men, and have accepted the possibility that I could have a physical relationship with one. Speaking hypothetically, of course.

Regarding couples who stay together after one of them transitions, there can be many reasons for the continuation of the partnership; inertia and the pragmatic desire to avoid upheaval can be quite influential considerations too… hardly the ideal recipe for a happy-ever-after story, but I understand that it happens.


noen 05.21.08 at 4:43 pm

I seem to be unable to communicate my larger point which is that descriptions of the world should not be mistaken for the world. That is what I hear when people say “so and so is this thing and not the other”. Reality, including people, is in the end unknowable. Even though we can approach it, it remains outside of our grasp.


Dave 05.21.08 at 5:47 pm

@20 but that point approaches a level of bleedin’ obviousness at one level that obscures the operative fact that, for all practical purposes, there are, actually, quite a lot of people in the world who are and will remain exclusively heterosexual [just as there are a lot who will remain exclusively gay, and a lot who will dart about in between having their fun where they care to find it]. To assert that sexuality is entirely unfixed and undefinable is no less daft than insisting that it’s equally emphatically fixed for everyone.


novakant 05.21.08 at 6:04 pm

I seem to be unable to communicate my larger point which is that descriptions of the world should not be mistaken for the world.

I can only speak for myself, of course, but having spent a couple of years studying philosophy and comp-lit-crit, I’m well aware of the problem you mention. Every generalization contains some injustice when applied to an individual and writing a novel about the sexual self-discovery of someone is infinitely superior to simply classifying someone as “gay” and leaving it at that. That said, I think some of our categories have been proven to be useful shortcuts that correspond to phenomena in an underlying reality. Discarding everything as an ideological construct is simply not feasible and if someone self-identifies as “gay”, I’m not going to tell him that he cannot really be sure about that and that his sexual identity is just an ideological eggshell or whatever. Rather, I’d conclude that he feels physically attracted to men and while there is probably a lot more to say about his sexuality and personality, it’s not wrong as such to apply that label.


seth edenbaum 05.21.08 at 6:31 pm

“I’m not going to tell him that he cannot really be sure about that and that his sexual identity is just an ideological eggshell or whatever.”
I am. As I am about anyone who says he’s “straight”
Such labels are vulgar and simplistic. They do not denote preference as much as ideology. You may as well call every conservative a fascist and every liberal an anarchist.


michael e sullivan 05.21.08 at 8:26 pm

I’m sure there are some people who never have and never will feel any sexual attraction for any person of some gender. I doubt they are all that common among gays or straights.

But a lot of people name their identity based on what regularly floats their hormones, as opposed to some absolute shibboleth.

I’m straight. After the standard youthful questioning about that (the fact that I don’t fit last century stereotypes of feral manhood means that, like 1/2 my male classmates in the 70s/80s, I got called a faggot all the time), it’s really quite clear. I find lots of women attractive. In fact, almost any woman that I like and respect is at least somewhat attractive to me sexually.

That doesn’t mean that I haven’t fantasized or admired men, or had some homosexual experiences. they just don’t happen often. I flirted with identity as bi, but that feels like appropriation when I did not have any active SS relationship or any real desire for one.

I basically agree with seth that politics has a lot to do with people’s sexual identity labels, and that most people’s sexual preferences are not as unipolar as they present.

I knew one gay man who addressed a question about of this sort on a mailing list with something like [paraphrased and remembered vaguely] “hell yes I have sex with women and enjoy it. That doesn’t make me not gay. I’m gay enough for society to hate me for it, so I choose to call myself gay.”

I don’t think it’s realistic to make proclamations about this stuff without some understanding of the politics of het-privilege and how that affects people’s identity decisions on both sides and in the middle.


Dave 05.22.08 at 3:36 pm

@23 “vulgar and simplistic”? I think it’s rather vulgar and simplistic to go around assuming that people don’t know who they are, but you’re sure you know who they might be. Pretentious and presumptuous as well. Someone is no longer allowed to state as fact that they have a sexual preference, because allegedly, theoretically, in someone else’s mind, they can be imagined as one day, possibly, swinging the other way? Bloody hell, get over yourself.


se 05.22.08 at 11:29 pm

“Someone is no longer allowed to state as fact that they have a sexual preference.”

I have no problem with statements of preference: I prefer women to men, red wine to white and dry martinis. Beyond that point I think taste shades into ideology.

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