I was watching a video essay recently on the complex gender & queer history of Nintendo, and it got me thinking – I was a teenager in the ’90s, yet I not only never really played much Nintendo… I also pretty actively disliked it. I was Too Cool for it.
I had often attributed that to being a Sega Kid. (The Sega marketing of the early to mid ’90s was aimed at kids of my age, and was based on showing Nintendo as childish and uncool.) I never got into really anything Nintendo – not even Pokemon, despite being envious of kid with Gameboys and being pretty close to the right age to be its target demographic.
But the more I think about it, I was primed to dislike Nintendo right from the outset, and even much of the gaming Sega offered. The reason? I think it has to do with a one-two-three punch of a Tim Burton I hadn’t seen, a yellow-hued monochrome off-brand IBM XT clone… and a tiny second-hand book shop in the middle of the city.
I was 7 when Tim Burton’s gothic grim-dark take on Batman released. As part of the truly enormous marketing campaign, an actual filming Batmobile was flown around the world, spending a week or so cordoned off in shopping centres. I went up to my local mall numerous times during that week, just staring at the thing’s sleek lines and wishing I could go for a drive in it.
The thing is, I wouldn’t watch Batman itself until I was quite a bit older. Kids at my school were obsessed with it, but my parents wouldn’t let us see something so ‘dark’, with my siblings being even younger again. But the aesthetics of it – the gothic style, the art deco, the shadows – spoke to me even without knowing much about the film itself.
Somehow, despite not having seen it and never having been particularly interested in comics or superheroes, Batman manage to affect my imagination. I read books and imagined their settings looking like this version of Gotham City, even if it was wholly inappropriate to do so. Fantasy novels I read became re-set in dark, rain-drenched cities full of graffiti and crime.
But the books I read were actually often more fitting of that kind of bleakness than you’d expect despite still being single-digits old – because I wasn’t reading kids books.
Because, well, while my parents were careful not to let my siblings or I see violent or dark media (if it was rated PG, we weren’t allowed to see it most of the time)… my dad owned a book store, and he did no vetting as to just what I was reading.
It was a small second-hand book store nestled in the underground shopping mall at Martin Place (an above ground pedestrian mall that’d later become famous as the venue for the Woman In Red test program in 1999’s The Matrix). When I was too sick for school, but not sick enough to need to lie in bed, I’d go to work with my father, hiding in the back, sitting in the employee nook reading whatever books I wanted from the countless piles he had there.
I had learned to read young, due in no small part to my father’s job. This was in the ’80s, when booksellers would go to conventions to get wooed by publishers, convincing them to stock whatever they hoped the latest successful paperback series would be. He’d often come back from these conventions (mostly in the United States) with whatever book stock was being given away for free as exhibitors shut up shop.
There was our local library, too. It was in a very modernist post-war building, and I would spent as much time as I could hidden in the up-stairs stacks, finding books (and movie soundtracks on tape) to absorb during the next fortnight.
With (relatively) limited ability to watch movies and TV compared to most of my friends, books were my cinema. And even my TV – our local library kept a complete collection of the novelisation of the original 1960s Star Trek series by James Blish, so while I saw maybe only 2-3 full episodes of Kirk & Spock’s space adventures as a kid, I read all of them – three episodes or so to a novel. When I finally actually watched more Star Trek 1960s episodes later on in life… well, look, let me just say that my imagination created a very different world to the cardboard-budget world of the actual series.
A lot of the media I absorbed was also very much not aimed at tweens and teenagers like me. In fact, my favourite fantasy series was a trashy but enjoyable one which, years later, I realised didn’t just have lesbian subtext… but text. (I only realised this years later when my “I think the two women are into each other” memory was put to the test buying it on Kindle.)
Then there came video games.
In the late ’80s and early ’90s, my friends had Nintendo or Sega consoles, ageing Commodore 64s or even (if they were very lucky) Amigas. We had no such luck. Ironically, my parents refused to let us buy devices whose sole purpose was to let us play video games. (“There’s no future in playing video games” is a particular irony given 2/3rds of their kids now work as professional video game developers.)
As a result, I mostly played the odd game at friends’ places – Sonic at one friend’s, back-seat driving during adventure games on an Amiga at another, and even getting to see the latest Famicom and Super Famicom stuff with my Japanese friend whose dad brought the hardware home from his business trips back to Tokyo (more on that later – it’s important).
But my first at-home exposure to a computer came in the very late ’80s, when my father brought home one of the famous (but still extremely out of date) IBM XTs. This certainly wasn’t a gaming machine. Its principle purpose was to let him use a digital spreadsheet, to help manage his book store.
But, sometimes, I got to play on it. Maybe an hour every week. Of course, it had no real games on it – just a collection of BASIC games which were entirely text-driven and a far cry from Sonic the Hedgehog or The Legend of Zelda.
In fact, the one I remember spending the most time on was Wildcatter, a rudimentary business sim where you ran an oil drilling company. To make it feel more realistic, I used to take the monthly reports the game generated and print them out on the old tractor-feed dot matrix printers. I would file these away, doing a few turns a day, pretending I was running the business like my father. (Talk about a very ’80s Reaganesque indoctrination into capitalism.)
So when other kids were playing extremely fancy 16-bit games, I was pretending to be an oil tycoon or reading lesbian fantasy novels. That would all change soon enough… but not quite in the way past-me would have wanted.
When I did get to play Sega or Nintendo, being at friend’s places… time was limited. You can’t really get into a single-player RPG when you’ve got maybe 15 minutes pass-the-controller with school friends, meaning the only consoles I ever liked back then were Sega – the ones with the fastest, the fanciest, and the simplest games.
I was given, a little later, a hand-me-down computer – a Commodore knock-off of the IBM XT I had first used, without a hard drive but with an orange-hued display instead of a green one. Really, this shouldn’t have changed much. It was functionally the same out-of-date computer I’d been using for years.
What was different with this computer? Well, nothing. It had similar specs (actually, worse as it had no 20mb hard drive to install things on)… but it was in my room.
This meant I could play games without parental supervision. Getting blank 5.25″ disk packets, I would convince friends to copy me whatever games they had that would run on such an old computer. Which, in practice, meant two things – texture adventures, and early Sierra games that still ran on monochrome displays. I couldn’t find many of the latter, either. Early on, I think I had Space Quest 1 & 2, Leisure Suit Larry, and a copy of Police Quest with a bad sector on the second disk, meaning I could play perhaps only the first third of the game (the patron car section).
This fed into my sense of being too cool for the games my friends were playing. While they were bouncing Italian plumbers atop of cutesy turtles, I was pretending to be a police officer or an oil tycoon or playing bleak sci-fi Infocom text adventures.
Over the years, I would eventually drop out of high school, get a job, and buy my own computer hardware. Soon my room was full of PCs – at one point I had three in my room, just for me – and could even afford to buy my own quite-graphical PC games, including one of the first ones I ever purchased with my own money.
Even when I did get graphical PC games, I tended to gravitate towards the long, self-serious role-playing adventures that still impact my taste in games today – the day I got a machine fast enough to run Ultima VII in my room led to many late nights fighting the evil can’t-believe-it’s-not-Scientology cult in Ultima VII (the greatest RPG ever made).
But my sense of being an adult, not a child, persisted. I balked at Mario or Zelda, despite being quietly envious of my friends who grew up playing them.
The irony, of course, is that what I most wanted wanted was complex games – systemically and narratively, to match the adult, grim-dark media I’d been consuming in text form almost since I was old enough to do so.
If I’d actually gotten a Nintendo, I’d probably have loved them. Maybe not Pokemon so much, but I am quite sure that had past-me gotten past the chip-on-the-shoulder and envy… they’d have become as die-hard a Zelda or Final Fantasy fan as anyone else.
However, when your only exposure to Nintendo is in pockets of time at friend’s places – I don’t think it’s really ever possible to love the most complex games on the platforms.
As such, all I saw with Nintendo… was twee plumbers and other things teen-me rolled their eyes at.
So while I sometimes imagine what-if scenarios about my past, the thing I most think of as I now begin my slow collecting of retro gaming hardware… is what if I’d been a Nintendo Girl?
Yes, it’s a list. I’m doing a listicle… thing. In actuality, an expansion on a bunch of twitter threads. (I should really learn that if it’s more than a handful of tweets, it’s a blog, not a twitter thing.)
It all began when someone asked me what my favourite vampire film of the ’70s was. It feels like a very specific question, but the reason is that the ’70s was a weird decade filled with a surprising glut of lesbian vampire exploitation films. Which got me thinking about other decades… and here we are.
So the idea is that for each decade from the ’20s through to now, I will select a single vampire film (if I can) which I consider to either be incredibly important to the vampire genre, or at least one that resonated most with me out of all the other flicks that decade.
It’s worth noting as well that my choices here reflect my own tastes, and my own interests.
The reason I passionately love vampire stories is that they can be used so well to discuss gender and sexuality, oppression, power and even toxic relationships.
This is where my interest in vampire films lies, and for that reason I will probably often deviate from the really ‘important’ and popular vampire films of a decade, to discuss one that touches more on these subjects.
Without further ado, let’s begin…
The Roaring ’20s
There’s no choice here. I mean… almost literally no choice. A handful of Russian and other European vampire films were made in this decade, but only one has truly stood the test of time to influence vampire lore (and cinematography) and it’s, of course, F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu.
The “why” of this should be obvious. It does what every great vampire film does, and it essentially did it first. The vampire is truly monstrous-looking, yet we still find ourselves empathising with him. The imagery is gothic & beautiful, almost romantic in composition – and yet there are still some genuinely terrifying bits.
The use of editing to move Count Orlock down the corridor without seeing him move must have frightened audiences out of their seats in the ’20s, and to this day remains a deeply unsettling sequence.
When someone asked me, “What really old films do you re-watch often?” my first impulse is to think of Citizen Kane and maybe Casablanca or The Big Sleep.
Then I remember this one, and it’s definitely the answer.
To me, this is actually more important than the original Lugosi Dracula film from 5 years before, though that is likely as I’m coming at it from an interest in queer stories. Being a ’30s film, it still obeys conservative morality, so she’s a villain who must get her comeuppance at the end.
Despite this, I love the film. In it the metaphor of vampires as queer people dealing with (or giving in to) sinister urges is as close to text as we’ll get in film for some years. In one particularly memorable scene where Countess Marya Zaleska, the titular “daughter” of Dracula, finds a young woman out at night alone and has her manservant invite her home for food and warmth.
“My mistress is an artist. She will pay you if you will pose for her tonight.”
And pose she does. The scene where she disrobes as the vampire looks on with pure hunger (or, lust) in her eyes is one of the queerest in cinema since Marlena Dietrich’s kiss with a woman in 1930’s Morocco.
It’s also worth noting an interesting irony with this film – that the first mainstream image of a lesbian vampire came in this cash-in sequel to a popular Dracula adaptation, rather than as a direct adaptation of Carmilla, the original lesbian vampire novella, pre-dating the original Dracula novel itself by 25 years.
The Fighting ’40s
Now to the ’40s and here’s the twist: I haven’t seen any ’40s vampire films. I thought that seemed odd, so I looked it up. But, legit? Almost no vampire films were made in the ’40s. Weird, right? But then, horror was in a slump then… guess people weren’t up for much horror in a decade when so much real horror was happening around the world.
Fear not, though, the ’50s has our back!
The Fangtastic ’50s
The 1950s, my choice has to be Horror of Dracula, Hammer Horror’s first Dracula outing. Christopher Lee’s grand entrance into vampiric canon is, to me, a work of art. It’s gaudy and colourful, but despite that Lee brought something to Dracula which built on what Lugosi did and made it… scarier. Much scarier.
He has Lugosi’s elegance and sexuality, but with a menace that for me always felt sort of missing in what Lugosi did. I’d be absolutely terrified if Christopher Lee’s Count Dracula appeared atop my stairwell at night; if Lugosi’s Dracula did I’d probably sit him down and have a polite chat about the etiquette of breaking into women’s houses in fancy capes.
And it’s quite a gorgeous film. More gothic shadows and the obligatory suite of pretty Hammer sets. (You’ll need to forgive the garishly bright blood, though.)
Beyond this, too, Horror of Dracula really kind of set the standard for future Dracula film in that the casting of Van Helsing was equally iconic. Who can even remember who played Van Helsing in the Lugosi Dracula?
Everyone remembers Peter Cushing.
The Sordid ’60s
Now for the ’60s. This is a tough one, as honestly… while there are piles of vampire flicks this decade, not many appealed to me. So the winner has to be Blood and Roses, the 1960 French/Italian arthouse lesbian flick.
It’s… not great. But to its credit its imagery sticks with me.
This film is allegedly actually based off Le Fanu’s Carmilla, though to call the adaptation ‘loose’ would be an insult to badly-tied shoes. A few name remain the same – Karnstein and Carmilla herself – but that’s essentially where the similarities end.
This sort of set the tone for Carmilla adaptations, intentionally or not. Despite being adapted into film at least 15 times from the ’30s on, few have more than superficial connections to the source material.
The end result is a hard to follow story – a bizarre thing involving parties, a fireworks display involving undetonated WW2 bombs, catacombs, and one of the leads being seemingly possessed by a vampire.
This and the surprising glut of lesbian vampire films to follow (I’ll talk more about that in the next decade’s section) seem to have one thing in common – style over substance.
But despite the story being a mess losing all the texture of the original novella, the imagery is pretty consistently beautiful – enough for me to excuse the story being bland and, wait for it… [drum fill] lifeless.
The Sapphic ’70s
The 1970s saw an absolute torrent of lesbian vampire exploitation and arthouse films, from the loosely connected “Karnstein Trilogy” Hammer did to several loosely based off the legend of the Countess Elizabeth Báthory, and a collection of surreal ones turned out by the French director Jean Rollin.
(Rollin directed something like 5 female-centred vampire films within a decade, though the one most people remember is Fascination, if only because of its iconic image of a woman in a cloak brandishing a scythe.)
My choice here though was actually quite easy, despite the number of vampire films to choose from – it’s the 1974 British-made, Spanish-directed lesbian vampire “erotic thriller”, Vampyres.
In the film, men (mostly awful men) die horribly at the hands (literally) of a pair of lesbian vampires. They live in a castle, luring men in for threesomes before killing them brutally. Fran and Miriam, the titular vampires, don’t simply live together but seem to genuinely love each other, too – at least a partial contrast to the predatory-lesbian tropes which abound in many similar films of the era.
The threesome scenes are certainly explicit for the era, with lots of nudity and (slightly awkward) kissing, and it’s pretty clear that the ‘erotic’ part was more important to the film’s bottom line than the ‘thriller’ part, and there is a surprising amount of fairly realistic-looking blood as the men are used as some combination of food and sport by our women.
In most vampire films, someone being bitten or assaulted by a vampire is usually drawn to them – is compelled and perhaps even enjoys their own demise. That’s not the case here, at least once the hunted realise their threesome is about to get nasty.
The murder and assault scenes are quite graphic – one where the leads finally attack a young woman instead of a man is particularly unpleasant. Screaming, torn clothes… it’s hard to read as anything but actual rape.
The film isn’t quite as pretty as some of the European exploitation films, but there’s a very specific reason chose this film over the many other choices – and why I have copies of almost all the trashy posters for it (shown above) on my wall:
The women get away with it.
In the typical early-20th-century vampire movie, the film ends when the vampire is destroyed by a worthy adversary (or even a Final Girl if it’s from the Slasher period). In a lesbian vampire film, it’s usually a man who waltzes in looking all Van Helsing. If they’re going by conventional tropes, they probably also end the film with a hint that maybe the vampire isn’t entirely dead – or perhaps someone else got bit.
There are only a few exceptions to this, and when they do exist they tend to be “victory for the vampires; but at a cost”. In the problematic but memorable Belgian lesbian vampire flick Daughters of Darkness (try and say that three times fast), one of the handful based off the Countess Báthory legend, the original vampires are defeated, leaving only the newly created one (and even her in mortal danger) – the horror trope of the cycle beginning again.
Vampyres, meanwhile, almost treats its leads as the protagonists. The first few men we see them murder are nasty pieces of work, and it’s truly hard to feel sorry for the victims. It’s only when they attack a woman later on that the movie seems to truly turn on them – they lose their home, but not their lives.
They escape, while one of their victims survives. This film’s version of “Maybe the villain isn’t truly dead?” seems to be “They kept their lives, but perhaps their surviving victim will exact revenge later?”
The Excessive ’80s
Now, given my real passion is lesbian vampire films, those of you who know vampire film history probably think you know what I’m going to pick -Tony Scott’s 1983 film The Hunger.
I mean, fuck, it’s sapphic as hell AND has David Bowie in it, right?
But no. It… never worked for me. Which isn’t to say I think it’s bad. It’s a worthwhile entry into the non-schlock vampire canon – I just didn’t really enjoy it.
See, the ’80s is when vampire films got truly fun. They got silly and weird in a way they hadn’t often been before – it’s when we had The Lost Boys and Fright Night.
My choice for an ’80s vampire film kinda fits in this vein (see what I did there?) but also does something else interesting – it merges genres. It’s not a lesbian film, but it is directed by a woman. My pick is Kathryn Bigelow’s 1987 neo-western vampire film, Near Dark.
It’s vampires not as elegant, charismatic creatures of the night but as a crude biker gang – a band of violent, motley Western-style outlaws.
Bigelow and her producer-husband James Cameron basically wholesale poached a lot of the cast of his earlier film Aliens, and brought their on-screen chemistry with them. So while the story isn’t exactly deep, the visuals and the amazing cast help make this unique take continue to have residence in my brain.
I feel like vampires are best when they’re used as subtext, or when genres blend to juxtapose with them other imagery, as Bigelow does here with Western and gang-movie tropes.
The Introspective ’90s
Now onto the ’90s and, sorry but… I have to go with the obvious one here. Interview with the Vampire, the film and its source material, have probably had a greater impact on vampire lore than anything since Carmilla and Dracula.
Interview, the book and the movie, set the stage for the Sad Vampire Protagonist trope that’d continue on in various forms for decades after. From Twilight to the angsty, angry, sexual vampires in True Blood, it’s hard not to trace it all back here.
Previous films may have lightly implied we should maybe empathise a bit with the vampires, but with Interview we finally got a film truly about the vampires. Unlike Near Dark, here even the villainous vampire who ushers our point of view character into unlife is, if anything, famously more compelling to viewers than the actual lead.
The film knows it, too – it’s why my favourite part of this film is the ending, when we finally get a glimpse of Lestat’s point of view.
“Always WHINING, Louis! [pause] Are you done? [turns off the tape of Louis’ life story] I’ve had to listen to that for centuries!”
In that one moment the film pivots to show us not only the sad, lonely, self-loathing monster, but the one who takes joy in his monstrosity – something most films rarely do.
I have to say, though, picking this one out of the decent number of good vampire films from the ’90s is tough. The ’90s also saw yet another iconic re-imagining of Dracula, done with incredible style and a high budget by Francis Ford Coppola.
But one other ’90s vampire film is so important to me that I think I need to break my ‘one film’ rule and talk a bit about it.
It’s 1995’s The Addiction, a strange black & white arthouse film about a philosophy major in New York who’s bitten by a vampire and has to suffer her newfound addiction to blood while she philosophises and drifts aimlessly about the streets, feeding off people as she is able.
It’s vampirism as drug addiction, and is a film I’ve gone back to again and again, especially the uniquely unsettling scene where our lead is first stalked by (and bitten by) her vampire maker.
It’s also notable for giving us not only Lili Taylor as a truly unique vampire, but also Christopher Walken as a thoughtful but intimidating fellow blood-sucker she lucks upon during her travels – almost to her doom.
The Naughty ’00s
From the late ’90s towards 2000 and beyond we got a truly staggering number of vampire films, and some of them were genuinely very good. We had vampires turn into action heroes with the Blade and Underworld franchises, we had problematic YA vampire romance making it into every second teen girl’s bedroom with Twilight, the creepy child vampire of Let The Right One In, and the interesting meta-textual story of Shadow of the Vampire.
My choice, though, my absolute favourite from the years 2000-2009, has to be 2001’s low-budget Canadian horror/action/comedy/musical masterpiece, Jesus Christ: Vampire Hunter.
In it Jesus (pictured here beating up a clown-car full of atheists) is tasked by a mohawk-sporting Catholic priest to hunt down vampires who’re killing the city’s lesbians.
It’s indie. It’s budget. It’s fun. It’s a musical. But most importantly? It has a surprisingly great, progressive message taking it from good to amazing.
When he’s beaten and left for dead in a laneway, the priest won’t help Jesus. Nor the passing cop. But the drag queen? Fuck yeah she will!
Jesus says “LOVE IS LOVE!” (Literally, that’s a line in the movie when he’s asked why he’s saving these horrible sinning gays.)
Despite its kitsch, I do actually also find the take on vampirism it has quite interesting. In it mad scientists are grafting skin onto vampires so they can walk in the daylight, and the reason they choose lesbians as the involuntary skin-donors is, uh… well it’s very ’90s, but still funny.
The film revels in its absurdity and its love for all the weird, queer, alternative things in the world.
When the evil vampire henchwoman is all but defeated, rather than destroy her Jesus lays hands on her, heals her and lets her become human again so she can be with her lesbian lover.
In this film Jesus truly saves (and performs a few great musical numbers too).
The Terrifying 2010s
The trashy vampires moved to the silver screen in 2010, giving us True Blood, The Vampire Diaries, The Originals. This move left room for the big screen to be dominated by indie films – especially a surprisingly large number of vampire films about or directed by women.
We had the arthouse American-made, Persian-language vampire film A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night. We had The Moth Diaries, a meta-textual take on Carmilla by Mary Harron, the director of American Psycho. We had The Unwanted, a micro-budget modernised take on Carmilla which went interesting places until its fuck-awful ending ruined it. And, of course, we had What We Do In The Shadows, the fantastic vampire parody which takes every trope for a hundred years and plays them with love, spinning off into two TV series and counting.
We even had the brilliant Only Lovers Left Alive, Jim Jarmusch’s take on vampires, taking the Sad Vampire Protagonist trope and playing it on a knife’s edge between drama and farce.
But my choice is a 2010 German film.
In We Are The Night a young woman and petty criminal who falls in with a group of female-only vampires, working off an almost SCUM-Manifesto-like principle that men only bring trouble.
It’s almost a female-centered counterpoint to Near Dark, but this time out gang feed, drink, fuck, play and go shopping at hugely expensive fashion stores and with a few exceptions (including an unfortunate and literal use of the predatory lesbian trope) they do all care for each other.
Even the ending, despite coming very close to either a ‘downer ending’ like earlier lesbian vampire films, manages to do okay – far better than other female-only-vampire-coven films like Bit some years later.
It’s also absolutely jaw-droppingly gorgeous – and suitably queer.
Even its use of vampire tropes is visually unique. In the scene where Lena, our protagonist is bitten by Louise, the head vampire, Lena is staring into a mirror. She turns around to look at Louise, then back in the mirror and watches in horror as she sees the bite on her neck appear, the blood drip down… but not a single hint that the woman is there behind her.
Some of the subtext is good, too – being turned into a vampire causes Lena’s hair to shed its black dye, to grow thicker and longer, her piercings heal and tattoos fade away – by being taken in by this female vampire group, her body is forcibly turned into a manifestation of conventionally-attractive, conservative feminine style rather than one she chose for herself.
Flaws aside… it’s a favourite of mine. Probably actually my favourite vampire film of all time. Gorgeous, sexy, unique, monstrous, emotional and straight-up fun. It manages to do all the things other vampires do, but in one film.
…but I’m not done yet. One other film in the 2010s was so good I have to talk about it here as a runner-up.
Two years after We Are The Night the director of the original Interview With The Vampire came back to vampires with Byzantium, a unique female-perspective vampire film.
In We Are The Night, male vampires don’t exist (by design of the female vampires). But in 2012’s Byzantium, vampirism is a gift rich men give to each other to control the world…
…until women take it from them.
A sex worker steals the gift meant for her abusive partner, leaving him to die while she and her daughter eek out an existence on the fringes of society while male vampires hunt them down.
It’s vampires to discuss the patriarchy, which is great.
The tension is between the mother and daughter, about the ethics of feeding, and about their right to exist with the gift of immortality which men feel is their domain alone.
It’s also another bloody gorgeous film, rich with imagery and sumptuous deaths.
Choosing between We Are The Night and this, the former won – but only just.
And that’s the end – for now. The 2020s have just begun so here’s hoping that we see more vampire stories using the tropes to discuss gender, sexuality and oppression.
(And hopefully more written and directed by women.)
One of the ways in which (especially) medically transitioning is often described is as a second puberty. Not just because it, well… almost literally is in the sense of once more going through an intense and complex hormonal change that modifies your body (though this time in a non-traumatic way)… but because of the social aspects.
Note: what I’m going to be talking about here is from a trans-feminine perspective, as that’s the experience I’ve lived. I won’t presume to know the ways in which it might be the same (or similar) for trans-masculine people, but I have a feeling there will be commonalities.
For most trans people, an ideal situation would be that HRT changes your body to be something you are comfortable in – but also changes it enough that you are gendered correctly by the general public. “Passing” is a complex and difficult subject to tackle, but purely for reasons of personal comfort and safety, the idea of being cis-passing so you don’t routinely deal with transphobia is a fairly understandable one.
If and when that happens, whether it’s purely from HRT or if surgeries are involved, you then have to deal with that experience – and the experience of suddenly being seen as a woman in society can be pretty jarring, to put it mildly.
There’s pressure to look a certain way, there’s cat-calling, men talking over you in meetings, presumptions that you no longer know technical things you’ve done your entire life… and the list goes on.
Cisgender girls and women deal with this all the time, and while their earliest experiences with it are likely as kids – maybe even before they hit puberty – the experiences are very much still there for trans women.
One of these experiences is based largely around insecurity. Because you almost certainly don’t look like the airbrushed models on billboards and magazine covers, and if you do, you probably don’t think you do – because that’s what a sexist culture does. It’s not just physicality, either. Maybe you feel you aren’t smart enough funny enough, or ‘stable’ enough in a good-Capitalist-worker-bee sense.
It can be compounded by transgender-related anxieties, too. Even some of the most stunning (in the conventional attractiveness sense) trans women I’ve known have body issues residual to years of debilitating dysphoria and anxiety about their body feeling wrong.
But regardless of the complex root causes, the upshot ends up something like this:
Three people asked me out or otherwise expressed interest in me in the first year since I came out and transitioned.
I said yes to all of them. I was absolutely elated. It’s not like I didn’t have people express interest in me from time to time before I transitioned, but when someone is finding you attractive because of a body you feel horrible in, it almost feels like confirmation that things are wrong for you.
By contrast, the first time a partner (or even potential partner) called be beautiful, my mind just about melted in delight. I remember so clearly the first time I was consensually sexualised by a partner because of aspects of my personality or body that were distinctly feminine, such as the first time a partner fixated on my breasts.
Thing is, all three of these people in the first year were bad matches for me. Very bad matches for me. I said yes because I just wanted to be loved. To feel attractive and valued and to have a relationship with someone now that I was capable of truly feeling physically comfortable in said relationship.
Now that compliments made me feel amazing, rather than re-enforcing that my body was just… wrong.
It’s not to say those people were bad, of course. Just that they were a very bad fit (one explicitly didn’t like me using “big words” which, uh…) and despite that I could see that almost from the start, I craved the attention.
I didn’t magically get over it quickly, either. It’s only in the past year or so that I’ve begun to recognise just how harmful to myself that behaviour was. But I was chasing validation, even if it came in the form of physical sexualisation only. I would do anything to have another woman writhing atop me, touching me, kissing me and telling me breathlessly that I was “so fucking hot”.
It wasn’t just harmful to me, either. I went on single dates with people who were firing off red flags even on the dating app, and I went on multiple dates with people when there was absolutely zero chemistry. I would eventually had to break it off (or, more often, chicken out of doing it and just letting them realise the relationship needed to be ended). It wasn’t fair on the people I was dating. I don’t think I seriously hurt anyone, but I guess I can never really be sure.
Relationships don’t always leave a shadow in your mind commensurate with their length, either. Some of the shortest experiences dating I’ve ever had left me sobbing and still sometimes pining for the person years later; some of the longest felt like they ended more naturally and I rarely think about them.
Thing is, when you’re not so much finding a relationship with someone you click with as, y’know, just saying yes to anyone there’s even the tiniest hint of physical attraction to… you’re going to end up with more unpleasant experiences than pleasant ones.
I admit there’s a part of me that’s embarrassed by all this. It began when I read articles or spoke to other women who did similar things, but usually at a much younger age. “I’m a grown-ass adult and I’m acting like a hormonal teenager” is not a pleasant thing to recognise.
Regardless of that, though, it is nice to see it change. To feel growing self-confidence, and no longer finding myself saying yes to anyone who happens to match with me on Tinder or Her. I go on far fewer dates, but they’re much more meaningful.
Truly one of the strangest things about transitioning (as an adult, anyway) is having experiences that most people associate with young adults or teenagers much later in your life. I’ve even found myself gravitating back periodically to YA stories and films – as even if I am largely past the craving-attention stage of my own development now, at least I can relate more firmly with those all-encompassing first-romance stories you see in high school movies, in a way I never quite could before.
That I am writing this near the end of 2020 from Sydney, Australia. Our country has done a truly fantastic job of containing COVID-19. Our initial lockdown in March/April took us to what we call ‘donut days’ – days with 0 local transmissions in our state. When a sudden case of unknown origin on the Northern Beaches hit a few weeks ago and blew out to (at the time of writing) over a hundred cases, selective lockdowns and truly incredible contact tracing & testing has reduced that back to single digits per day, despite it happening over Christmas and New Years, a time when people are in the middle of serious partying.
It’s not over, of course. If we’re unlucky, despite intense restrictions on the size of indoor gatherings over New Years, we may get more clusters. If our so far incredibly effective tracing methods fail there and it came to the worst, we’d likely lock down again, same as we did in March – and same as Melbourne successfully did mid way through the year when they had a runaway hotspot. It’d suck, but I am sure we’d once more be back to gleefully declaring that we’d had “a week of donut days” or the like.
However, despite this being the case, in other parts of the world, more people are dying each day than have died in the entire of Australia from COVID, and while I talk about having gone through a single several-month lockdown in this, I’m only too aware that a lot of people have done it much tougher, and many are still locked down.
What I’m mostly talking about in this post are things related to the social effects I’ve seen in a place where the pandemic has begun to subside in most of the ways people like me notice on a day-to-day basis
So the context is this: immense privilege just living where I am, and where despite our federal government being awful, our state governments & state health departments are getting us through this.
Secondly: When It’s Over.
I’m going to talk about ‘when it’s over’ a bit here. Or even refer to it being ‘largely over’ for us here in Australia. This isn’t true, of course. Vaccines are just starting to roll out around the world, more people are dying now than ever before, and even in Australia it’s going to be many years yet before COVID-19 stops dominating our news cycles, political discourse and even our life decisions.
So, when I talk about it being “over”, what I am referring to is when the risk is low enough that for the most part our lives are going back to the same kind of routines we had before the pandemic.
This is important because, barring current hotspots like Avalon in the north-east of Sydney, this is how things are right now for most Australians.
And yet, at least from what I’ve seen… things are not the same as they were, and I’m not sure how long it will take for them to be so.
In March, for a regular medical procedure I had to trek into the CBD for the first time since lockdown. A friend gave me a lift, as I did not want to risk public transport. Shops were shut, streets were empty and I saw almost nobody without a mask on.
It was a surreal thing to see. Before this I’d only seen empty streets like this in movies – you couldn’t clear out Sydney’s CBD during the day or evening like this if you tried.
Otherwise, having just moved into an apartment on my own for the first time in my life, and having the privilege of an office job I was easily able to start doing from home, my life became more or less the lockdown cliché.
I ordered local organic produce boxes.
I learned to cook things I’d not made before.
I went stir-crazy, scared and unsure just how long this would last or even if somehow this would be the end of civilisation as I knew it (your brain goes to dark places when you see almost nobody for months at a time).
I tried to change up my routine by taking different morning walks around my suburb. I had my breakfasts on my balcony, so at least I wasn’t constantly inside my apartment.
But then the restrictions eased.
I had a friend over to watch movies. We made cocktails, and it was one of the most amazing nights of my life. I nearly cried.
My birthday came shortly there-after, and I had the truly amazing experience of seeing two of my friends at once, to show them one of my favourite recent films.
Perhaps it was because the pressure of organising a party wasn’t there, or perhaps it was just that I hadn’t seen two friends together like that in what felt like an eon, but it sticks in my mind as the best so far of my just over 3-dozen birthdays.
Then more restrictions were eased.
Bars opened up, dotted with gauche signs that made my skin crawl because all I could think of was people in other countries dying en masse.
I finally went to one, on a tinder date, somewhere in the middle of the year.
It felt… off. We may still have been able to go to bars, but the new “CovidSafe” restrictions businesses were required to abide by changed the experience of being in them. Fewer seats meaning far fewer patrons. Checking in and sanitising your hands before being seated. Table service only – no lining up to get the next around.
These are all good things, of course, but… the experience was more the awkwardness of a restaurant, not the laid back feeling I had missed from bars.
And even beyond that, many of my friends are immunocompromised and won’t be going out to bars or gigs again until a good percentage of our population is immunised – enough for them to feel safe in doing what I felt safe enough to do months ago.
That first experience going to a bar post-lockdown sticks in my mind because it was enough to make me not really want to do it again. It’s been more or less safe for us here to see some friends in bars all but a few months of this year, really – and yet I’ve been to a bar a grand total of 4 times since March.
In 2019, I almost used went to that number on a busy week.
As the year was drawing to a close, a friend came over who had been stuck in Melbourne during their second lockdown. As with most of the socialising my friends and I do these days, it was at one of our houses.
We sat on my balcony, drinking gin and catching up, and she said something that got me thinking: “I was looking forward to getting back to Sydney, because I’d get to see all my friends and socialise like normal. But it’s not like that.”
I used to see small groups of friends every weekend, and would catch up with people at bars or cinemas a few times a week after work.
As my friend put it, “You go out to a bar for a bit, then message friends to see who’s out, join up with them, and you keep going until the night’s done. But not now – nobody’s out, so you just see the one or two people you started the night with.”
In the months since it was more or less over, friendships had changed. Everyone had to pick who to spent time with. For those in nesting relationships, that usually meant their partner and, often, another couple they know who lives nearby. Or maybe a BFF.
My social circle went from many dozens I’d catch up with regularly, to seeing really only my closest friends – both in an emotional sense and a geographic one.
When travel feels like an additional risk, the people you can get to see most easily end up being the priority.
As a result, people I really do care about I’ve barely seen this year – the tyranny of distance just got even nastier. Other people I barely knew have become new BFFs, because they were there. They checked in on me when I was in lockdown alone.
I presumed that once things went ‘back to normal’ this would change – I’d start catching up with friends again in a more casual way, but the simple fact is that hasn’t happened.
Friendships have been irrevocably changed from this. I keep thinking of how a certain person didn’t reciprocate my desire to hang out with them earlier this year, and how much that stung. I was not part of their Covid Circle.
Then I think of people who reached out to me and… got the same reaction from me. I didn’t feel close enough to want them in my inner circle. So that sense of hurt I felt, they might well feel the same.
Even when things got slightly safer, those social changes seemed to stick. Instead of this enormous big queer bubble I felt like I lived in, I now live in a tiny one more or less of a combination of luck and my own devising.
When I decided to have a small gathering for drinks in November, and needed to pick 10 people to invite to stay at a nice low number… I realised this was very easy, as I didn’t really feel close to more people than that any more.
What’s missing is the people you liked, but maybe weren’t really close to. Those people you never spoke to outside of the times you happened to run into them at a party a mutual friend had, or because you ran into them at a bar in Newtown.
I haven’t met a single new person this year without intending to. Outside of tinder, there were no parties, so I didn’t make random new acquaintances.
Social circles are smaller, and largely stagnant.
Perhaps, by end of next year, when the bulk of our populace has been vaccinated, things will be more “normal”. Things will return a bit more to the way they used to be. But even then, the social fallout from all this likely won’t.
Social groups will be different. We’ll be more used to smaller cliques, and I’m just not even sure any more that everyone will go back to the way things were before.
After two years of not travelling much outside our suburbs, maybe some of us will be itching to do just that, and become travellers even around our own city in a way we hadn’t been before. Or perhaps we’ll just get used to things as they have been since the pandemic began and… just stick to it.
For a lot of us, the habits formed during this pandemic will result in ongoing changes in how we socialise, see friends and go about our lives, even once it’s over.
I’m just surprised how dramatic and immutable those changes already feel.
One of the interesting things about getting a shiny new console on launch day is that the catalogue of games you can get on it are… minimal. The upshot of this is that rather than my usual trick of perhaps buying maybe 2-3 games a year, only in very specific subgenres that appeal to me, I find myself playing games that are far outside of what I would normally play.
The last time this happened was, unshockingly, when I got my brand new Playstation 4.
It’s usually an interesting time for me, forcing myself out of my comfort zone, seeing what there is to enjoy out in the wider planes of video game land. Hell, when I got my shiny new Xbox 360 I even played a few sports game – and I do so hate sports games.
This year, one of the shiny new games I tried is Demons’ Souls, the PS5 remake.
To say I bounce off souls-like games is… and understatement. I’ve tried Dark Souls 1 and Bloodborne before, and Demon’s Souls is… much the same for me (if many, many times prettier).
Within a week of trying this and a few other games, I found myself simply re-installing old favourites and using my blank new PS5 with no save games as a good excuse to re-play them from scratch.
Red Dead Redemption 2. Watch Dogs 2. I’ve even occasionally committed the horrible sin of letting my shiny new console sit idle while I go back to playing indie management sims on my desktop computer.
But going so far out of my comfort zone got me thinking – what exactly is it I like in a video game?
When people ask what I normally play, I usually reply with the most superficial of answers – I play open-world Action and RPG games, mostly, plus some management or construction games. And flight simulations, of course, though really for me the desire to jump in Microsoft Flight Sim and do a flight happens when I am in a different headspace to when I feel like playing a ‘real’ video game.
As I sat there, angrily cursing at Demon’s Souls and trying to find something other than the graphics I liked about it, I began to think more about my answer to that question. Because I don’t magically like all open-world Action or RPG games, of course. Who does? There are very specific titles I like.
I got Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla for my PS5, but lost interest in that game incredibly quickly – yet it, like all the previous AC games (some of which I’ve enjoyed immensely) still fits in a category that I usually enjoy.
An hour later, my PS5 was asleep in the corner of my room while I found myself diving back into Subnautica, one of my go-to games since I first discovered it way back in early access.
As I sat there in my observatory dome underneath the ocean, waiting for the sun to rise and plotting out my day’s expedition to the Mushroom Forests to collect the lead, lithium and quartz I’d need to begin my next base expansion, it finally hit me.
Why Subnautica appeals to me, yet Green Hell does not.
Why Red Dead Redemption 2 appeals to me, yet Far Cry 5 does not.
Why Airport CEO and Project Highrise appeal to me, while Two Point Hospital does not.
Why games I may have really liked in years past, such as Star Wars Squadrons or even Mafia (the remake) caused me to lose interest so fast.
Video games have different scales at which they function when you play them.
There’s the moment-to-moment gameplay, usually requiring some degree of tactical thinking and hand-eye co-ordination. Do you manage to get off that headshot in Red Dead, or do you miss and end up back in cover, suddenly surrounded by more Pinkertons and in a worse situation than if you’d made that initial shot? Do you manage manage to tale that Barque carrying a load of lumber as a prize in AC: Black Flag? How well do you nail the placement of the ammenities and offices you plan to lease out in Project Highrise?
Then there’s the larger, more strategic thinking that goes into them. What is your plan for your day in Red Dead 2 – do you go hunting in the morning so the camp has food, into town during afternoon to trade in some goods you stole during a recent robbery? Are you going to build a new hydroponics wing for your base in Subnautica, or perhaps clean up and improve the Moonpool and submarine docking area that you were never quite happy with?
The action in Red Dead Redemption 2 is, frankly, quite easy. I play enough third and first person action games that it’s quite rare I die Red Dead, and when I do it’s usually because I made quite a foolish mistake. The same is true in Mafia III and Watch Dogs 2. Subnautica may not be an -easy- game per se, but half the game is avoiding close encounters with horrifying sea monsters – not seeking them out to kill them, as you frankly cannot really do that in most cases.
What keeps me playing them is not the moment-to-moment challenge of gunplay or stealth in any of those games. I have no interest in playing a difficult game solely to get better at the combat mechanics. In the games I like, the combat is a small, momentary thing that rarely presents a huge challenge.
Will I successfully take out the six guys who ambushed me from behind the rocks on my way easy through the heartlands in Red Dead 2? Almost certainly yes. I’ll enter dead-eye mode and headshot a few, dive off my horse, fuck behind a rock for cover then take the others out. Unless I am very careless, it’s not actually difficult. What makes that engagement interesting is what comes next – the decision of what to do right after the guns come out.
The gunplay happened on a road. These men tried to rob me, and are now lying dead, their possessions morally mine within the general ethics of this kind of game. Do I go and pad down the bodies, taking their money, ammunition and trinkets to sell at a fence later on? Do I do that and risk that a traveller on a horse or carriage may turn up, see me looting the corpses and run off to describe my crimes to the nearest law-man, resulting in a bounty on my head?
In Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, raiding settlements is a big focus of the game. You and your longboat full of angry bearded goons scream and charge into the town in a historically-sanitised raid that usually results in no ‘civilians’ being killed. Once that’s done, you open their chests and pilfer their valuables, before heading off on your way. There is no real decision to make, other than when to begin your raid. The challenge, and what people obviously enjoy about that game and others like it is the combat itself.
The moment to moment challenge of using your skills and weapons to defeat the village’s random large guard captain and some of his underbosses, along-side the many other random men with swords who come out to defend their village is the point. Once it’s one, you get your spoils and head back to spend the loot upgrading your village, giving you access to more equipment and tools to make the next raid easier (or at least more possible to accomplish).
I haven’t taken pleasure in getting better at fighting in games for a long time.
I’m not interested in spending hours re-fighting the same battle until I manage to take out a particularly tough boss. To me, it’s the larger decisions about what to do next in a game that makes me come back for more, especially if those decisions exist in an internally-consistent world, ideally resembling our own to some degree.
I accept that combat is, in many games, mandatory. A thing that we have long since accepted as just What One Does In A Video Game.
I sometimes even enjoy it a bit.
But for the most part, video games are about escapism to me. To spend time living in a place or time I cannot actually be in real life. The moment to moment mechanics should be simple and easy enough to almost be flavouring – something which adds to the sense of really being in that world.
I accept that Arthur Morgan gets into gunfights and robs banks because, well… that’s the story this game is telling. But it’s the fact that I can get on my horse, ride for days, camping at night, hunting for my meals and trying to find interesting places to visit that grabs me.
If that part was spun off into its own game, I’d play it – if the combat parts were put in a Naughty Dog style linear action game with the same story, I’d likely never have even finished it in the first time.
The meta-game and the experience of a world feeling real interests me; the mechanics of the moment-to-moment gameplay only interests me insofar as they help me feel like the world is real.
It’s why management and construction games where you build a single, large functional system or object interests me (whether that is a single commercial tower in Project Highrise or a city in Cities: Skylines), yet strategy games where you build multiple smaller structures as part of a ‘campaign’ of levels, like in Two Point Hospital, tend not to.
I want to create, explore and enjoy a space, whether that’s a top-down 2d space or a large, open 3d one. I’ll even shoot or stab a few people in that space, if I must – but the world feeling alive and the game giving me a sense of accomplishment when I complete my own player-set long term goals of advancement and construction will always matter more to me more than how challenging an individual event or encounter within that space is.
A year or so into my transition, I went over to a few friends’ new apartment for dinner. They were a (cis) lesbian couple I’d been friends with for years, and the night might have been simply enough lovely evening with friends, if it wasn’t for one thing which means now, years later, I still think of it.
I think about it because of their neighbour. She was a very straight, very cis woman who had just had her first baby. They’d apparently helped her with something not long before, and this particular night she happened to pop by and have a glass (or three) of wine with us.
As I mentioned, this was pretty early in my transition. I was quite lucky in the amount of cis-passing privilege I had developed very quickly – my body took to oestrogen running – but like almost anyone who’s been misgendered or clocked as trans in public, the fear of that happening had stuck with me. Still has to do this day – being misgendered is almost never a thing that happens to me, yet I still have low-key anxiety that it’ll happen.
My friends were, of course, supportive and had been from the start. But this random woman… I had no idea. She seemed very typical. She was confused by these two lesbians. She’d never really met any lesbians before, seemingly. She even asked the staggeringly awkward question of “who’s the guy in the relationship?” which, yes, it turns out still get asked of lesbians.
I made the decision to out myself. It was something I did then and still do now in a lot of social situations – I’d rather be open about who I am. If there’s going to be awkward transphobic responses, I’d rather it happen quickly and be dealt with.
The reason why this interaction stuck with me, though, was that her response to me coming out to her as transgender was by far not what I had expected.
I’ve gotten lots of reactions from people, from polite nods to genuine shock to them clearly having just had their suspicions confirmed, and of course the typical and uncomfortable non-compliment response of “Oh! I’d never have known!”
When I came out to this woman, she looked me up and down, furrowed her brow, then asked, simply, “Which way are you transitioning?”
She had no idea if I was a trans woman or a trans man. (I highly doubt the notion of me possibly being non-binary was something that entered her mind.)
As it’s relevant here, it’s worth noting how I was presenting at that time: very feminine. I was even then fairly curvy, wearing a dress showing some cleavage, with makeup on. Whatever anyone thought of me, it’d be hard to read my style that night as anything other than ‘very feminine’.
“I’m a trans woman,” I replied to her.
“Oh,” she said. “So does that mean you were… born a woman, and won’t be in future?”
This threw me even more, but I decided rather than correct her with the nuance of ‘being born’ a specific gender, I’d just ignore that and answer simply. “Born male.”
She didn’t seem surprised, in any way. Just curious.
The idea that she would have been entirely believing of the concept of me being a trans man stuck with me. She knew so little about the very idea of transitioning that the idea of someone with a (for lack of a better term) feminine body, wearing dresses, makeup and keeping long hair, might be a trans guy. It’s possible, of course – there are so many social reasons why someone may present in a way that’s not how they’d prefer to present. This, however, clearly didn’t come from a very progressive place of “I will not presume your gender on the basis of your body and presentation”; it was instead from a place of absolute lack of understanding.
I’m not a stranger to getting questions which showcase someone’s complete lack of knowledge of biology, bodies, hormones and transitioning, of course.
I once had a cis woman ask me if I could get pregnant.
Another time, a guy asked me “when I had my surgery”. At first thought he was just very rudely presuming I’d had lower surgery, but it quickly became apparent he presumed I’d had breast implants, and perhaps in even facial surgery to ‘look female’. The idea that hormones make trans women develop breasts same as they do for cis girls (and with as much variation in shape and size) was something he simply didn’t know, nor that someone with an androgynous face going on oestrogen might also end up looking quite feminine without surgery.
I don’t think about those questions, born mostly of ignorance as to hormones and biology, anywhere near as much as the woman who wasn’t sure if I was a trans man or a trans woman. I suppose because it showed a different level of ignorance – that the very idea of presenting in a way that you might feel comfortable despite your body had not occurred to her.
It made me realise how privileged my social circles had been, even before I had out trans friends, never mind realised I myself was also trans. I was used to people experimenting at least a bit with their presentation – men with earrings or eyeliner or even dresses (albeit mostly at parties), women presenting as butch as they pleased.
So even now, years later, I think back to that woman, because it reminds me just how little many people know about transitioning. Just how foreign the concept is, and how assuming even a baseline level of knowledge from people is likely unhelpful.
It made me think that even the inaccurate and problematic narrative of “born in the wrong body” was something she didn’t know, and how even that would have at least put her vaguely in the right ball-park, if not exactly totally on the money.
When you are queer or trans, it’s very easy to vanish so completely into a queer-literate, trans-literate and even poly and kink-literate spaces. So much so that it’s sometimes jarring to poke your head out of that and realise how how foreign all of this must be to people for whom the very idea of questioning their gender or even their sexuality, or the road map from dating to marriage to kids and a white picket fence, is foreign.
A friend sent me a picture – a sketch, related to the conversation we were having.
I replied, saying it was super cute.
Then I stared at that phrase for the longest time. That’s super cute.
It’s not uncommon, either – I sometimes find myself focusing on something I have said, or something I have done. I do this when I notice something which is so very, very clearly not something I would have said or done a decade ago, before I accepted who I was or transitioned.
Of course, there are a lot of these things. From the everyday and simple, like putting on a bra, to changes in empathy or language, or even which kinds of media I seek out for relaxation and enjoyment.
I usually, however, end up focusing not just on the little things such as a single cutesy phrase, but on things past-me might have resented, or even mocked when I was at my most resentful of the world.
I hated the term ‘super’. I’d never have described anything except, maybe, a little kitten as ‘cute’. I was so bitter that a simple act of expressing delight at something nice would have made me eye-roll.
I focus on terms like these because it makes me realise not just how much I’ve changed as a person in the past half decade, and mostly for the better.
Of course, some things remain the same. I am, despite sometimes enjoying the Doctor Who metaphor of having ‘regenerated’, still actually the same person, of course. I may have new interests to compliment or replace ones I’ve had my whole life, and I may look different and often communicate slightly differently, but I am the same person.
You don’t need to transition to go through personal growth, of course. It’s just that transitioning generally comes with a set of new and very different experiences that might affect the course and intensity of that growth.
Something that always springs to mind is what I mentioned earlier – that I as so very bitter and angry before. I’d have, when describing myself before, used the term ‘jaded’. In retrospect, that’s not the case. I was confused, angry and bitter to be sure, and perhaps jaded about my response to certain kinds of media, but I had no idea just what ‘jaded’ was until I’d begun to experience year after year of sexism, homophobia and transphobia. In TV shows, movies, in person, in the news… at a certain point exhaustion and jadedness blur together when you feel like progress is so slow and sporadic that it almost doesn’t seem worth fighting against.
Especially when you begin to recognise that a lot of those changes I began this post talking about… are because of those things. Because of sexism. Because of Transphobia. Of homophobia. Some of it internalised, some of it external and inflicted upon you.
Last year, I found myself in a meeting with a room full of mostly cisgender men. I had a suggestion, which I thought was correct, but I knew might run into some resistance. I made it, but I realised after I did so that I hadn’t declared it as a suggestion… I had raised it as a question.
Why did I do that? When did I start doing that? It’s an incredibly common thing. Had I begun doing that because I saw other women doing it and subconsciously adopted that method of communication? Had I done it because I’d spent years freshly adjusting to men questioning my ideas or statements more than they ever had back when they saw me as One Of Them?
A lot of these small changes seemed to happen subconsciously, with me only realising I was doing them years later. I learned the hard way early on that being too warm, or too kind to a guy can result in him thinking that you’re hitting on him.
So despite my natural urge to smile and be polite, I adopted a more guarded tone, even a cold one, when talking to men I don’t really know. But not too cold, of course – then I might be accused of being a bitch.
All these changes, shifting to an environment and to people who now treat me entirely differently, happened slowly, and as I realise I’m doing them, I feel that growing sense of jadedness.
I didn’t just change how I spoke, I also realised I was having my own sense of value and confidence shook. Years of people (even other women sometimes) presuming that because I am not just a woman, but a very feminine-presenting one with dresses and makeup, I must not be a technical person. People question my statements about something involving a programming language I’ve used since 1998, and when that keeps happening, you even begin to question your own knowledge and abilities.
I double and even triple-check things I am confident about now, before I dare post a declarative statement of fact about them I would have just blurted out years ago.
I can’t tell if that’s good or not. The reason for doing it – a growing lack of confidence in my own capabilities and experience – is clearly bad. I’m just not sure if the actual results have even a slightly beneficial side-effect.
These things, when I notice them, are definitely fairly extreme. They affect how people relate to me, how I relate to them, and how I think about myself.
Yet it’s that’s super cute that sticks in my head more.
I think, because unlike the other things, this is clearly a positive shift. Not that I used that language specifically, but that it came from a genuine place. I saw something, felt a little moment of joy, and expressed it, figuratively and literally smiling.
This was not something I was able to do before. I might have gotten that little bit of joy at seeing something pretty, cute or otherwise aesthetically pleasing, but I’d never have expressed it so simply, clearly or emotionally. Because that was just not how men did it.
Shedding the more toxic aspects of behaviour I was mimicking in order to fit in, and recognising that I’ve done it, is a wonderful thing to realise.
So many people, regardless of gender, seem to be afraid to express joy at the tiniest little positive experiences. I’m sure for some men it’ll be for a similar reason to why I did it – to try and fit in when society tells you Men Behave This Way. Or perhaps for young women it’s as a rejection of the inverse – that a cutesy phrase is expected of them, and they want to be Cool instead.
I’m not saying I think everyone should use cutesy phrases, of course… just that I am glad I now feel comfortable doing so.
I’m flying at about 4,500ft, south of Canberra, heading towards Cooma. The autopilot is on and I’m just sitting, watching the world go by. Then a buzzer goes off. I hit pause and answer the door – it’s a package that needed delivering.
Good thing flight simulators can be paused.
I, like, a probably an actual majority of people, have found myself very nearly house-bound throughout most of this year. At best, largely bound to my own suburb. It’s a beautiful suburb. Leafy and spacious. But at a certain point, every street feels like I’ve walked down it a hundred times, and I find myself itching to travel. Not even in that “tinder profile of person who notes how many countries they’ve been to” way, just in the “going for a train trip out of the city” way.
My standards, I suppose, have dropped.
But it does mean I’ve been playing video games more than I think I ever really have before. I had sort of lost a lot of interest in gaming in the past few years, but with little else to do, I’ve been burrowing deep into games that let me be somewhere else.
Mostly open-world games – ones I’m fond of, or ones I haven’t played. And Flight Simulator 2020, of course – which has been a balm in an awful year. What I found, though, is that my favourite games are ones that take me to places that truly exist, if in a more real form than the condensed versions of cities and spaces we see in video games.
I very quickly found, however, that the places I most wanted to ‘go’ in these video games were places I have been before.
With a mod tacked on to play GTA V with my VR headset, I drove, in the rain, to the virtual Santa Monica pier and just stood there, watching waves crash and people run for cover.
I found myself remembering what the first cocktail I had at that pier had tasted like. How accurately the bird poop on the hand rails were modelled. The feeling the humidity in sprinkled rain.
Then there was my flight down past the, uh… optimistically modelled Lake George, over Canberra, Cooma and finally into the Snowy Mountains. I’d just stare out the window, and it was there I saw a small farm. A large house, a shed, a water tank, a dirt road leading down the gentle hillside to join Jindabyne Road.
Memories flooded back of visiting a family friend’s property, decades ago. The crisp, cool air and the smell of the bushes. Trying not to tread in rabbit-hole while hiking about. The odd sheep-skull from long-past flocks of past owners. The odd mixture of a very cool breeze coupled with the warmth of the late afternoon sun.
Flights over Hawai’i brought back similar memories – cooking dinner in a cheap motel in the rainforest just out of Hilo, being amazed by the intense green of the little lizard that crawled by on the outside of the flyscreen.
After a few weeks of this I realised something – it had become my primary purpose when I played games. I’d been seeking these out – ways to trigger intense and positive memories through video games.
I can’t see my friends in Seattle. It’s likely I won’t be able to see them for some time yet – but I can walk through its streets in Infamous Second Son, giving me pleasant memories of whiskey bars, rainy mornings, craft beer and walks through nearby forest trails.
I can even bring back weird memories of Schoolies Week in Byron Bay two decades ago, by playing Forza Horizon 3.
When I go to virtualised spaces in a video game, based on places I’ve not been, I am making my own memories. I have feelings and experiences visiting the Mumbai streets in Hitman 2, but they are entirely about that game. They’re about the fictionalised, violent world of contract killing, not memories of the real place brought back from the game – as I’ve never been there.
So I keep playing more games set in places I know and love, and realise something else: these video games are making me want to travel more than any advertisement or even most any movie.
They’re letting me travel, and they’re a gateway to my own memories – in a time when it feels like memories are really all I have.
Like a lot of people, to say I’ve been struggling this year would be a dramatic understatement. But, I think, like a lot of people, I’ve also avoided talking about it. 2020 is, for many of us, the year that brings “Oh I shouldn’t complain – others have it so much worse” so far wedged into your mind that it seems like an impossible mantra, never to leave your head.
The worst part has been that I couldn’t quite figure out why I seemed to be coping so much worse than other people. Of course, the first answer to that is – I’m not. And if you only know me through twitter, it’s likely you didn’t even realise I was particularly down. I’m long past the point of feeling comfortable expressing too many genuine feelings on twitter. I smile. I make jokes.
I once posted one of my truly awful puns, and a reply to it ending in ‘haha’, while my face was entirely stained in tears and my hands were shaking.
Yet that problem still ate at me. Why was I sobbing in loneliness, anxiety, and dealing with genuine (if mercifully fleeting) self-harm ideations for the first time since I transitioned 5 years ago? Why was this so hard?
There’s never a simple answer to these things, but I began to put the pieces together during, of all things, a podcast. I have been burying myself in podcasts about film. I would pick a filmmaker who I found interesting, and listen to every podcast I could that they had guested on.
This one was Diablo Cody, and she was talking about horror – specifically, her (so far only) foray into explicit horror, the underrated classic and personal favourite of mine, Jennifer’s Body.
What mattered, and what hit me like a freight train in a Tony Scott movie, was this observation of hers: “The one thing that I remember about the friendships that I had [in my teen years] is they were incredibly intense. Moreso than my romantic relationships that I was starting to have with guys. I was just completely enamoured with my best friend, and yet there was these forces conspiring to tear us apart. Because, you know, as you get older you don’t have the space in your life to nurture those friendships any more.”
The Bad Times
For the past few years, since my transition, I’d been living in a sharehouse with (not counting the usual sharehouse comings and goings) more or less the same group of people. I had been planning to finally move on myself this year, but when the sharehouse unexpectedly dissolved in late January, I finally had to make a decision.
After an entire life of living with family, partners or flatmates, I wanted to try living on my own. I am quite an extrovert, to put it mildly, but figured as long as I was seeing lots of my friends with frequency, living alone was something I should try at least once.
I wasn’t quite financially ready to move out on my own yet (what the buying of new appliances, etc, atop the usual moving costs) but with the sharehouse collapse forcing my hand, I figured fuck it.
By February I was living in my own one bedroom apartment, alone, for the first time in my life.
By March, COVID-19 was tearing across the world, and I found myself very quickly not just living alone, but in contrast to my intended coping strategies for living alone, I was seeing… nobody.
Without being too hyperbolic… it was a few of the worst months of my life, and I found myself crying myself to sleep at night, desperately wishing I could hug or even just briefly touch the people on the other end of the regular video calls with friends that have now become a staple of life in 2020.
It hit the point, some weeks in, where I put on makeup… because a courier delivering something. I had no reason to impress some random courier who’d see me for a grand total of 5 seconds, but I wanted something – anything – as a reason to do something I used to do all the time.
The After Times
Since then, things have changed. I’m lucky enough to live in a city that’s doing… okay. In fact, in the grand scheme of the world, we’re doing remarkably well.
Apart from limitations imposed on very large gatherings, new seating labels for public transport, the understandable social pressure to wear a mask, and signing in when you got bars or restaurants so you can be tracked… things are supposed to be closer to normal. We can go to bars and restaurants. Holidays are being advertised (albeit domestic ones and always in the same state).
It’s even possible to have a conversation with someone and not have the global goddamn pandemic be the single thing you can talk about.
But we’re all still being cautious. Most of my friends who still have jobs outside of retail or hospitality are working from home, and it’s looking like that’ll be the case with every vaguely rational office employer for potentially a good year or so to come.
Single White Female, 35 or older
When I moved into this apartment, it was one of several I applied for. For the first time in my life, I not only got the one I wanted first time – but got every one I applied for. I got to pick which of the several apartments I had applied for I truly wanted to live in.
I was extremely confused, and a friend of mine who’d worked in real estate explained it to me. “You’re the perfect tenant. That’s why. You’ve got a full-time, white-collar job, you’re white, female, living alone and in your late ’30s. You’re old enough that you’re less likely to fall pregnant and suddenly be moving out to a larger, baby-friendly place, and you’re white and female so statistically they think you’re more likely to keep the place in good condition.”
That was a jarring thing to hear. A reminder of the sexism, racism and uncomfortable pragmatism of capitalism and the rental market.
But, given the gross biases against me in almost ever other facet of my life as a queer, transgender woman, finding the one instance where some of those things could work in my favour was not a gift-horse I was going to dismiss.
It was a ‘category’ I’m now a part of that would enter my brain more and more as the year wore on.
Even as things begin to re-open in my city after the first wave of COVID, while technically I could still be going to bars, parties, going on tinder dates or doing all the usual things that were part of my life pre-2020… the fact is that’s not the case.
It didn’t quite make sense to me at first. I was seeing friends, if usually only one on one. So what was different? Why was I turning into an emotional wreck?
There are many reasons for this, I’m sure, and many are things that have been discussed in every article and Facebook post we’ve seen for months now.
The anxiety of the world being changed and having no clue, even if those we love around the world do all survive it, when (if ever) we’ll get to resume anything even slightly like our previous lives. When our life goals or dreams will start being possible again. If we’ll still be employed in a week, a month or even a year.
But there’s another aspect to all this which hit me as I heard Diablo Cody’s comment in that podcast.
“Because, you know, as you get older you don’t have the space in your life to nurture those friendships any more.”
My friendship pool has shrunk enormously in the past few months.
Even friends I do talk to, many of them I just don’t see any more. Even ones who live a short walk from my new apartment.
People are becoming insular. I saw it described as ‘pods’. It’s a bit like polycules, in a way. We all pick a few friends we’re seeing in person, and sticking largely to that group.
I can’t even tell you fully how I picked my own little ‘covid pod’. It’s not even necessarily that they are the current closest friends in my life – there are other factors. Perhaps I don’t see some people because they’re immunocompromised, and they’re isolating even now. Perhaps they’re just not the right kind of friendships for me right now. Or perhaps I don’t feel we’re close enough that I want them seeing me at this extremity of my life.
There are some people I wish I could see, but for whatever reason they don’t seem to feel the same way about me. They haven’t haven’t chosen to see me. It stings. I don’t blame them for it – as I’ve said, the people I’ve chosen to see aren’t some perfect measure of the people I care most about. It’s some strange subconscious selection process my brain seems to have done based on everything from proximity to the kind of things we used to do together. I may not blame them, but it still… hurts.
Friendships are gone, or minimised.
Those people I mostly saw casually at parties and caught up with while hammered at 1am in the host’s kitchen helping to clean up… they’re gone now. Not in my life.
You see, it feels to me like by this point even if there is a vaccine magically mass-produced tomorrow and the risk of COVID is gone within a year… things won’t be the same. Some friendships are gone, never to come back.
Some people I’ve reached out to randomly had moved house. Gone through breakups. I likely won’t see them in the same social groups again, even of some shadow of those groups survive this.
People are hunkering down with their partners and families.
Which brings me to the next bit, and one of the main reasons I feel broken right now.
2020 is the very worst possible time to be single – or, at least, to be single and not want to be.
I’ve never been very good at being alone. To my detriment I’ve often stayed in relationships until long after their expiry date being passed has been obvious to everyone in my life but me.
I’ve had a habit for years now of saying yes to dates on tinder out of sheer loneliness, rather than because I was truly into the person. This is made worse because I am not only a sapphic transgender woman, but also one sort of vaguely situated somewhere on the asexual spectrum. Not entirely to one side… but enough that hookups and empty sex are not a thing I can do.
So in the past when I’ve gone on a million dates in the past, it’s been out of a desperate desire for intimate emotional connection, not to try and get laid.
This… doesn’t always work, to put it mildly.
I’ve been on a few dates since things “re-opened”. Careful ones, of course. One was even at a bar, as uncomfortable and strange an experience as that feels post-covid.
I’ve even been casually seeing someone, even if it’s not quite at the point where we’d put a label on it like ‘girlfriends’, and I’m not sure if we’ll ever get there.
But in every functional way that people refer to being ‘single’… that’s what I am.
So here I am now, and the closest people in my life are non-sexual friendships.
These are people I cherish dearly, and I know the feeling is mutual, but they also have partners. Romantic, intimate or even domestic partners.
I don’t. So when I have a breakdown, like the entire of this week, I talk to friends, and that’s it. When they have breakdowns… they go to their partners.
I’ve stopped watching lesbian romance movies – they’re too depressing. Instead I’ve been watching movies about complex female friendship. Life Partners. The Spy Who Dumped Me. Even Jennifer’s Body. At least those, even the genre ones, are a bit easier for me to relate to.
It’s hard to describe just how strange and depressing it is having the people you truly love in your found family not be actual romantic partners, in a queer community dominated by polyamorous relationships, during a time when friendships are so often vanishing and slipping by the wayside as people huddle in close to their partners and wait for this all to blow over.
To have nobody there when you wake up crying at 1am after yet another awful dream.
There are days when I genuinely don’t see how I can survive this – my life goals were ruined by this pandemic, maybe never to quite be a possibility again. Dating is even tougher than usual.
I’ve “been” to two funerals this year. Both via video link. In each case either I was too far away, or not “close enough” to the deceased – so not invited to the service.
It’s hard to describe just how horrible the feeling is of crying during a funeral service, seeing your family & friends without being able to hug them, and when the service is done, rather than going off to a wake for a few cathartic drinks with other mourners… the video link cuts out, and you’re left crying alone in your apartment.
More and more, as time goes on, I find my growing fear of dying alone is bleeding over from my nightmares into my casual thoughts.
But who am I to complain? I have a job, and a roof over my head, which is more than many people have.
So much of the week, though, I miss waking up in a busy sharehouse, having random beers with housemates whose plans fell through. I miss after-work drinks at bars. I miss house parties. I miss the weeks looking forward to them before going. I miss live shows. I miss dressing up to go out. I miss waking up next to a partner. I miss animated discussions about where our next holiday will be.
I miss life.
So I sat here, quietly, sobbing almost once every day since February, not letting myself admit just how much my life has been torn apart, and how I miss having even the tiniest little shred of hope for the future.
Some time ago, I began a project to write a future history. That is, I wanted to write a coffee-table book full of stories about space-going disasters… but written hundreds of years from now.
This story is one of the chapters from this work in progress, Hull Breach. The idea is a series of interconnected stories from the earliest years of humankind’s colonisation of space to the later years of warfare, disaster and faster-than-light travel.
The story of the loss of the Forrestal is a unique one amongst space-going disasters, for several reasons. Firstly, it was one of the largest vessels ever lost in space outside of combat. Secondly, it was one of the largest economic losses in a single disaster ever. Thirdly, and most strangely… only a single life was lost, and many people have argued that the life lost was not technically part of the same incident, even if it was an unintended consequence.
So what happened?
Crime is present wherever humans are; it’s just the scope that varies. Draconian measures are often taken to stop small crimes from happening, while for the most part, since formal laws have existed, large-scale crimes of all sorts have been committed, and will continue to be.
But the scale of this crime is, at least logistically, probably one for record books.
Let’s meet the SV Forrestal. As the name might hint at, Forrestal did not begin life as a civilian vessel. She was, at the time, one of the largest military transports ever built. Part of what was initially known as the Jerodd M. Kane class until the unfortunate destruction of the vessel bearing that name, Forrestal was a unique vessel. Constructed in 2167 at the Titan Ship Yards in the Sol system, she was one of the largest and most clumsy-looking jump-capable freighters ever created.
See, the problem is – she pre-dated what we now know… that dependant on the energy input to the jump field stabiler, de-structuralisation of certain elements toward the outer edge of the field could take place, as explained by Svetlana Medrov’s famous Third Theorem of Space-Time Compression. In short? She was too big for her jump drive, and over time the outer segments of her sprawling hull began to lose structural stability.
She began to literally fall apart.
Thing is, every ship in her close, obviously, had this problem. In fact it was what destroyed the lead ship in her class, the before-mentioned J. M. Kane.
Of the eight military transport vessels in her class, the Forrestal was one of only three that survived into retirement. Neither she nor her sister ships were given a clean enough bill of health to fly again, but due to various engineering issues throughout her career, the Forrestal had performed significantly fewer jumps than the others. As a result, where the others that survived past the publicisation of Medrov’s theory were scrapped, the MTS Forrestal was sold to a civilian owner and re-registered as the SV Forrestal. It was considered too dangerous or her to fly deep into space, and her jump system had been removed after she was declared unsafe for jump travel, but this didn’t matter to the owner. Surprisingly, it was sold for a mere 280,000,000 credits… and not to a ship broker.
The new owner was an import/export specialist and self-made billionaire, quite famous at the time, by the name of Nami Tristram. She owned stakes in numerous import/export concerns, but outside of her own private yachts, owned no ships – certainly nothing commercial.
You see, the famous billionaire had a specific in mind: it may be unsafe to fly, but the Forrest was still an enormous structure with fully functional life support systems and heavy armour. Nami Tristram bought it to turn into a freeport.
A freeport is the same now as it has been for centuries – an unintended consequence of law. When carrying goods, be it between countries in the era of sea-going vessels or between solar systems in the era of the intersolar colonisation, taxes are almost always required to be paid on arrival, usually a percentage of the cost of the goods you’re shipping.
So when a voyage has multiple legs through individual state bodies (say, carrying goods from Sol to Alpha Centauri then finally via a different vessel to Lorthal), one would legally have to pay tax on entering AC sovereign territory, despite it not being the intended destination.
As a result, freeports exist. Spaces or buildings which, not unlike embassies, have unique laws applying to them, different to that of the host nation. Usually, the upshot is this: you can store your goods at a freeport and not pay tax. The theory is it’s just temporary, but historically there has not been much of a limit on the amount of time you can store goods somewhere, as long as you’re willing to continue to rent the space.
So, the Forrestal travelled for the last time under its own power to the Barras Orbital Facility around Alpha Centauri B. One of the largest space station structures outside of Sol, she was notable for being a very popular mid-way destination between Sol and the outer colony worlds, and something else important: its gravity was generated by internal centrifugal spin, not by rotating the whole structure.
The reason for this makes perfect sense – as a trade hub, some spaces needed microgravity for human habitation or storage, where-as others might be better kept as near to zero gravity as possible.
The upshot, however, was this – the Barras facility had a non-moving exterior hull, allowing very large ships to dock comfortably. So, a long-term lease taken out on three of the largest airlocks on the stern section of the outer rim of the facility, the Forrestal was docked for what was to be the last time.
She then her interior rebuilt, knocking out walls and replacing the thousands of bunk beds and industrial storage spaces with various sizes of cargo compartments.
Within six months she was almost always nearly half full of goods coming and going.
Five years later came a very important historical event – the collapse of the Lalande Federation. With the power structure gone, people with money fled. Many of the richest, however, saw the writing on the wall and got out early. Before the Lalande economy collapsed taking its dollar with it, many of the richest people had left, translating their soon-to-be-worthless Lalande Dollars into something that would still have value. Then, as now, a good way to store large amounts of money in a small amount of space is this: rare gemstones, artworks, and other things that not only cost an enormous amount of money, but occupy little space and are highly unlikely to depreciate in value.
The problem is, if you’ve just bought the famous “Portrait of a Solar Explorer” work by Spandas Kai for nearly a hundred million converted credits, you don’t want to take it with you only to pay, say, an 8% import tax on its value.
The result? The Forrestal’s internal storage space, registered entirely as a freeport under Alphan law, went from mostly-full-of-cargo to absolutely stuffed to the brim with expensive, portable objects of great value.
It became a tax haven of sorts. It’s estimated by one fraud specialist that nearly 78 billion converted credits worth fo goods were stored in that hulk at its peak.
Unfortunately for the owners, certain people began to figure this out. It began, as a lot of big moments of theft do, with a combination of opportunity, and need. As it happened, one of the dockmasters of Barras was, as his deputy later put it, ‘lousy with gambling’. His name was James Dreign, and he loved cards. He owed money. Lots of it. And he began to realise something: being a freeport on an already-protected station, the Forrestal was nowhere near well-guarded enough to house the many, many expensive goods they had aboard.
The problem is that getting goods off the ship might be easy, but getting them off the station would be hard. Security checkpoints, scans, license checks – all for ensuring people don’t evade import duties, of course – would make that part too difficult even for an insider to pull off.
So he forgot about the idea. It might have passed into history as just another random idea from a disgruntled man, except that within six months he would be fired from his job, at least nominally for drinking on the job.
Dreign went from a nice stateroom befitting his status as Senior Dockmaster of one of the biggest civilian ports outside of Sol, to a tiny rented hotel room in the lower levels of the low-spin section of Barras.
Hung over and bitter, his mind wandered back to the Forrestal. He would later describe this in an interview (then under a pseudonym) for the Proxima Centauri Buzz, a scandal rag doing what may have been its first vaguely-serious article.
Dreign claims he went to his gambling associates and told them he could pay off the debt he owed them, but not in cash. In a tip. A huge tip.
It took him a week to convince them to go ahead with his plan, and it’s not too surprising anyone would think he was mad. The plan? Steal the Forrestal. Entirely.
While docked to the facility every sensor and security officer would be trained on the vessels presently docked, even long-term hulks like the Forrestal. But if they got it even a few thousand metres away from the station… most of the external sensors, which are designed for docking security, would no longer be able to detect them as they stripped her of everything that had value.
It was a plan so grand and absurd that it’s a wonder that even one other person got involved. But the relatively low risks (for the people bank-rolling the operation, anyway) versus the high financial reward was enough to convince at least two still-unnamed grey figures from the facility’s huge population to front up the cash, equipment and manpower for the job.
The plan was simple: cut the vessel free, use tiny manoeuvring thrusters to push her well-wards away from the facility and toward the planet, then unload her precious cargo in the hours before she would burn up on re-entry into the planet.
Now, on almost any other station this would have been impossible. If nothing else, people would look outside their portholes and see that the biggest ship docked with the station was gone – or floating outside, at least. But this was where Barras’ unique design benefited the thieves: she had no external portholes on the lower, non-spinning stern part of her superstructure, and nothing else docked there but for the Forrestal.
Instead she had external cameras, which could in theory be set to loop the same footage, at least buying them a few more hours.
So, in practice that wasn’t simple. Many things needed to be dealt with.
Dreign would have to call in favours with people he once worked with, paying them off to disable the docking sensors on the three airlocks. He’d need the person in charge of the life support system to let him sneak in a hack so that the ship wouldn’t fire off alarms when the pressure outside airlocks 67a, 67b and 67c all registered a huge drop within moments of each other.
Beyond this, he also needed to do it when the one watch officer on the otherwise-lifeless Forrestal (it was mostly defended from thieves by an electronic security system which would need to be disabled) was taking a break – a longer than usual break, funded by some of Dreign’s new business associates.
Another problem he had to contend with is that one big danger for the Barras facility was ships burning too close. RCS was not allowed to be fired near the station, and certainly not main drives. As a result, heat sensors were set up all along the exterior of the hull. So using cutting torches to remove the small stubby airlock links between Barras and the Forrestal just wouldn’t do.
As a result, they snuck in some cold-cutting torches, normally used for specialised repair work in dangerous atmospheres. These would reduce the temperature of a specific part of the metal airlock hull so they could be cut apart. Temperature alone wouldn’t easily do this, of course – a space craft’s hull, even the airlock stubs used at stations, are meant to operate at temperatures far below zero. But by reducing the temperature of just small patches of the metal, the integrity of the hull would be sufficiently ruined to allow the tiniest amount of pressure to tear the airlocks free.
It is said that this enormous heist’s initial stages – getting the hulk away from the station – would involve merely eight people, including organisers such as Dreign. Seven of them would eventually be sent to jail.
On a night three weeks later, every piece was put in place. Two members of the C-shift docking staff, not knowing what they were being paid off for, ignored or shut off certain sensor readings. Four people with low-power emergency MMUs departed via another airlock on the Forrestal, mounted ultra-low-power ion drive vents in the right places on the hull, then began to cold-cut the airlock tubes.
Two hours later, in what this author considers one of the most underrated acts of spacegoing engineering ever, the Forrestal began to drift free of her moorings.
The air pressure from the airlocks was enough to give the giant vessel a tiny push away from the facility.
What happened next must have been one of the most stressful moments for everyone involved – they could not fire the ion drives for some time, until they were sure even a tiny burn wouldn’t trigger the heat sensors on Barras. So they had to wait for the huge thing to open to at least a hundred metres. Given how little of a push she’d been given by the venting of air, this took hours.
With the external camera feeds on loop and the Forrestal now drifting away, people both inside the facility and still floating outside in MMUs must have waited with baited breath.
Then, mere minutes before it was considered a safe time to make the minor burn to send the Forrestal descending down to the atmosphere of the planet, something unexpected happened: an unscheduled boat got picked up on sensors.
An emergency beacon was on – the boat in question, the Mavis Marr, had suffered a minor electrical fault and had, just two days after leaving Barris, come back for repairs.
Realising there was now a chance worker bees would leave the station to help the Marr back to port, and that the Marr herself may indeed notice the enormous ship drifting away from the station, someone made the call to burn early.
As it happens, the decision may not have, for them, been the right one. Heat sensors did indeed go off as the Forrestal’s makeshift ion thrusters burned – just enough that the specialist in charge of thruster safety, Tara Xing, was woken up by the shift officer.
Five minutes later, she was at her post, performing sensor scans, wondering why a decent-sized burn had been detected, consistent with (ironically) station-keeping burns by large vessels.
Within half an hour, Xing’s by-the-book scans showed anomalies, and she ordered both a reboot of the external sensor systems (including the cameras) and heat sensors.
While that reboot was taking place, she then ordered an active radar sweep, something rarely done by a commercial station in peace-time.
At first, seeing the huge object appear on the sensor station, Xing thought there was some kind of computer glitch. Surely someone would have noticed if a ship the size of a small battlecruiser was a mere kilometre away?
When the cameras came back on, Xing realised right away just what the object was.
Within moments, alarms were going off and a security cutter had been ordered to head straight for Barras.
Interestingly, as nobody considered that anyone in their right mind would try to steal a giant space craft like the Forrestal, the first thought (and the only thought until some time after it burned up in atmosphere) was actually just that there had been some kind of catastrophic emergency with the docking systems in the rarely-used well-ward section of the facility.
The cutter was six hours away at high speed, and that may well have been enough. The people in the MMU had a small skiff waiting for them, and that time alone could have been enough to get at least the most valuable items from the freeport aboard and get them fleeing for safe port somewhere else.
Unfortunately, something else went wrong: the four emergency ion thrusters were not well-maintained. How could they be? They were unable to be legally bought for obvious reasons, meaning they were salvage.
And one… didn’t work properly. So somewhere in the middle section of the bow of the Forrestal, an ion drive slowly continued its burn, not only continuing the enormous vessel’s descent toward the planet’s atmosphere, but also beginning a slow turn. The Forrestal began a slow, ungraceful arc, spinning so much within moments that the salvage team no longer felt they could get aboard.
So, making a call of self-preservation, the skiff boarded the engineers in MMUs and began to get out of there before the cutter arrived.
They wouldn’t make it. A warning shot and several communications were all it took to get the skiff turned around and back to Barras for jail and trials.
Meanwhile, with nothing else to do, the Forrestal continued to spin faster and faster as she descended into the atmosphere.
She would burn-up as the Barras crew and, by this point, the whole solar system, watched in horror. She took with her an estimated six hundred works of priceless art, jewellery, not to mention the usual stash of everything on its way to other ports, from electronics to freeze-dried foodstuffs for outer colonies.
All but Dreign were caught within a day for their part in the attempted heist.
Dreign used his knowledge of the station to make it onto a freighter bound for Proxima, where he finally made several interviews (likely for the money) before attempting to vanish into obscurity.
His body was found, stabbed repeatedly, six months later in a backwater space station, making him – arguably, at least – the only human casualty of the famous attempted heist. Nobody was ever tried for his murder.
As for the financial loss? In the end the insurance payout was made, but not enough, due to the circumstances, to cover the enormous value of the goods on the hulk. In fact, the total amount of the insurance payout is believed to be in the order of just a few million, to the Forrestal’s owner, Nami Tristram.
So, given she bought the hulk for under a million converted credits initially and presumably earned much that back in operating profits anyway in the several years it’d been a freeport… Nami Tristram may in fact be the only person to come out of this incident in a better financial situation than when she went in.
Tristram never made a public statement on the disaster, and never went back into the freeporting business.