Before I worked at the Royal Hotel and moved into the West End of London, I used to wait for my bus in front of a construction site on Granville Street. Over time, I became a familiar face to the security guard working at the hotel. He was a man of my height and stature with salt-and-pepper hair and a gentle demeanor and was, I thought, quite attractive. We always exchanged a few polite words, nothing too serious. He seemed shy and reserved but always said hello with a smile. When I last saw him, he was walking with the aid of a cane.
One night around 8 PM, the security guard entered the hotel lobby. He was no longer walking with a cane and looked disheveled. His head was shaved, his fingernails were long and dirty, and he carried his belongings in two green garbage bags. He wanted to rent a room for a few nights. He told me that he had fallen on hard times and was living out of his van, but it was towed away. To save money, he had been living in Stanley Park for the last several months.
My “spider sense” tingled. I didn’t get a good feeling about the situation, so I tried to encourage him to go elsewhere. I quoted the maximum price for a room, but he had enough money to pay it. He asked for a room with a bathtub. I told him we only had stand-up showers. Nothing I said discouraged him. He was determined to stay. He said he had enough money saved to pay for his planned weekend. When he saw my reluctance to rent him a room, he made me a solemn promise he wouldn’t be a problem. I remembered him for being a nice guy and in the end I gave him our best rate on a room with a bathtub for two nights.
As it turned out, my spider sense was right. About an hour after checking in, he called the front desk telling me he was about to make a life-changing decision and wanted to speak with me in his room. I didn’t feel good about the phone call and told him I could give him five minutes.
Suspecting that I might find him in drag and hanging from a light fixture, I took a box cutter with me and asked one of the bartenders to keep an eye from a distance. I knocked on his door and he told me to come in but the door was locked. He unlocked the door but didn’t open it. I opened the door but didn’t see him and when he spoke. His voice came from behind the door. I told him I wouldn’t enter the room until he came out—wisdom learned from my days as a jail guard.
He came out from behind the door dressed in complete drag and in a distraught state. I remained in the doorway and watched him frantically pace about the room, smoking a hand-rolled cigarette and nervously rattling off his story. The energy in the room was a tense battle between life and death, with sanity hanging from a thread. He told me that he never knew himself as a man but always as a woman and forever hated that thing between his legs. He was living in Stanley Park to save money for the hormones he needed to start his transition from male to female. He said he never had friends because, when he hung around with someone for too long, they would always end up being freaked out by his girly behavior. He grew tired of hiding his true nature and was now ready to face the consequences. But before he would be considered for surgery, he had to out himself and live as a woman for one year. As it turned out, his mission on this night was to out himself as transgender to someone, and that someone was me. He said from our conversations in front of the construction site that he felt safe with me and could trust me. At one point, he yelled: “This is not about sex!”
I told him I knew that. “It’s about identity,” I said. He went silent. I don’t think he expected me to say that, and in that moment I sensed all the deathly energy from the room. Life had won out. In her desperate moment of need, someone had understood. She asked me if I found her attractive. I told her I like boys and not girls. Did I like her feminine attire? I didn’t have the heart to tell her she looked like a trucker in old-woman drag, so instead I told her I was sure once she got comfortable with her transition she would adopt a more fitting look. All I could do was give her a hug, wish her the best, and reassure her that she would be okay.
The next day, when I came back to work, she was sitting in the hotel lobby, still looking like a trucker in drag, wearing a long, flower-print dress, a shawl, sensible shoes, and white gloves. She sat in the lobby trying to work up the courage to take her first walk in public as a woman. That walk was tantamount to her transgender freedom, but she was paralyzed by fear. As luck would have it, a hotel guest, a European leather guy, entered the lobby and saw her in distress. After hearing her situation, he offered to escort her on her walk down Granville Street. They left with her on his arm and returned about half an hour later. They had walked a few blocks down Granville Street to Starbucks, got a coffee to go, and returned to the hotel lobby, where she sat back down. She was proud of herself for making it that far. I watched her firmly grasping her cup of coffee in her trembling hands.
She smiled and exclaimed proudly: “At least I didn’t spill any coffee on my white gloves.”
Robert Hamilton is a queer writer living in Vancouver, Canada. He has been journaling his life and gay experience since 1988. His writings include poetry, short stories, scripts for stage and film, and recently published his memoir Our Story: Coming Out in the time of HIV and AIDS (Renaissance Press).