“As a trans-disabled person, I’ve always had less of a place in the world – or that’s how I’m perceived. Performing [comedy] gives me that chance to say, ‘no, I have a place’, even if that’s on the stage.” For a society built on gendered toilets, inaccessible buildings, a fear of diversity and the need to fit a binary, it’s a wonder that any of us on the margins manage to find a place where we fit. Let alone those of us who may be a minority within a minority. But self identified trans-disabled man, Michael Conway seems to have found that place.
Through his passion for improv and stand-up comedy, Michael found much of his confidence: “It’s helped to bring me out, to stand up in front of people and put a punchline to things that might not often be considered funny. I mean, I’m a struggling stand-up comedian – who also struggles to stand up!”
In earlier years, he admits to having favoured a self-deprecating humour, one many comedians from marginalised groups appear to be outwardly comfortable practicing: “I did lots of trans-disabled humour but I’m moving away from that. It’s just not fair to myself to actively put myself down for others’ entertainment. A lot of queer comedians and people in general are saying, ‘I don't want to do that anymore’. I like to put myself out there and be like, ‘this is my life; it’s hilarious, but it’s also sad at times’.”
Michael speaks candidly about his disability and his trans masculine identity: “I knew that I wasn't a girl at all. When I was eighteen, I began to explore these feelings and I thought that I may have been non-binary or bi gender. In summer 2017, I fully accepted and began to identify as a trans guy.”
Being young and discovering that you are queer can be terrifying and self doubt in one’s own identity can surface. For Michael, comedy can help to actualise people: “My new show is called Pride. I wrote it for everyone who ever had these ridiculous thoughts about themselves – you know, imposter syndrome. And for those who may have a diagnosis of a disability as an older person. I was diagnosed when I was seven, with dyspraxia and cerebral palsy, so this is just me. I don't remember getting a diagnosis. This is just the person I am.”
We are too aware of the monumental challenges faced by people with disabilities in Ireland and the lack of services and resources available. Add to that trans identity, as a person tries to access an area of healthcare that is already at crisis point.
Michael says: “I definitely believe that my disability has affected [my medical transition]. It’s hard already, but as a disabled person, it’s harder to access HRT, particularly if you are perceived as mentally ill. I’ve been dealing with ableism all my life. And this is the worst cross-section of ableism I’ve experienced.”
Michael lets out a knowing, hearty laugh when asked if he ever gets the question that most trans people will be familiar with [usually delivered by someone who hasn't Googled the subject]: ‘So, are you going to get the surgery?’, as if one magical visit to the hospital will rid you of all dysphoria.
“I’ve been asked that loads. There are hysterectomies, phalloplasty or metaplasty, mastectomies, nipple grafts, or people having lipo on their hips to give them a more masculine appearance. People need to know how long, difficult and expensive it all is. It isn’t just one surgery. It’s multiple, painful surgeries; a complicated process that’s hard to recover from. And some people don't want surgery! You can certainly be a man with a vagina. Of course you can!”
Masculinity. Man. What do these words mean? Most of us are guilty of linear thinking at one point or another, and some of us still are. Michael does not subscribe to the notion that there is one way to be a man, or one single path to masculinity: “Masculinity is whatever you make of it. I like to express mine through different aftershaves, more masculine scents, and I like to wear blazers and trousers. But I can still feel very masculine in a skirt, or a dress. Colours don’t have a gender and clothes don't have a gender. I can still be a man wearing a dress,” he states with admirable confidence.
He continues: “For me, it’s not anything technical, like behaviour. It’s just the sense of being a man, being who you are. That’s central to me. I don't feel like a woman. It’s hard to put into words, I am just a man.” Single-minded ideas around gender expression are something that many within the trans community continue to suffer beneath. Age-old stereotyping and forced adherence to a binary damage a community, and carry woeful consequences. But how can we change this?
“It should start with education,” Michael begins. “Google exists. I don't think we should get marginalised people to be our free emotional labourers. Questions are okay, but I’m not going to become your trans Wikipedia. I’m not your dictionary for trans or disabled terms. The information is out there. Places like BelongTo have some great resources.”
Reiterating how the arts have helped him along his trans journey, he notes the role of art in educating others. It can be seen in trans and disabled people volunteering their complex, beautiful bodies as nude models for art classes, or in the influx of queer artists and performers becoming increasingly visible.
It’s his comedy to which Michael attributes his infectious assuredness of himself, and his own understanding of masculinity too. On this, the last word goes to him: “You can still be masculine and present however you want. You call your own masculinity, whatever it means for you – for yourself.”