When Roxanne Hastings and her drag king dominatrix friend made their entrance at the Edmonton Symphony concert, the elegant crowd parted like the Red Sea. The dom wore a tuxedo and all the gear that goes with it, Roxy a shimmering glamour gown, stratospheric heels, an array of glittering jewelry, and huge, astonishing hair. “We were decked out rich,” says Roxy. “You absolutely could not miss us.”
As they mounted the broad steps to the hall, an older gentleman in formal attire locked eyes with Roxy. “I knew that look,” says Roxy. “He was thinking, oh my God, what a gorgeous girl, and he was cranking up the charm.” But as they got closer the smile froze, the eyes widened, and the formally attired gent turned into a rabbit caught in headlights. “He was so shocked he fell over, he actually hit the ground!” Roxy laughs now in telling it, wickedly, like a boy who’s just farted in church. “My friend said to the guy, “You took him for a girl, didn’t you?’ He turned beet red, I’d never seen anything like it. My friend and I nearly wet ourselves laughing. That sonofabitch had to go home thinking about how he’d been attracted to a male, and what did that say about his own sexuality? I like that. I want to challenge people to think. That’s the adventure.”
And that’s Roxanne-Ross Hastings, something of a missionary when it comes to gender. Roxy is also curator of botany at the Provincial Museum of Alberta, specializing in the evolution and ecology of mosses. I asked about pronouns, she or he. “Doesn’t matter that much to me,” says Roxy, “though more and more I prefer to be treated in the female role, even when I’m looking like a guy.” Today she’s a mix, in moderate make-up, a full but restrained wig, and a long, loose dress that moves easily and doesn’t inhibit her stride. At forty-five, she has chunky shoulders, a strong grip, and a light male voice, more jock than siren.
Roxanne remembers being drawn to a farm equipment calendar at her grandparents’ house in rural Alberta. A beautiful cowgirl poses by a John Deere tractor. “The other boys expected that when they grew up they would drive that tractor,” she says. “I knew just as surely that I would be the calendar girl. And knowing that, I hated myself.” Ross Hastings was four.
For the next two decades, dressing in his bedroom, then in his own apartment, he kept his hateful habit secret. Around 1970 a racy Penthouse article on transgender offered cold comfort: he was not the only one, he learned, but he was a sexual freak. Not considering himself to be gay, he didn’t seek contact through any gay channels. For three years he lived with a woman; they were lovers, until she discovered that he was cross-dressing. “I don’t put any blame on her,” says Roxy. “If you’re miserable about your own life, how is anyone else supposed to love you for it?” Now he was free to dress as he liked, at least at home, but he was also increasingly isolated. “I spent thousands of dollars on clothes and wigs, then I’d throw them away. I thought that would solve the problem. Then I’d go out and buy new ones.”
Finally in June 1995, at age thirty-nine, Ross picked up a copy of Illusions magazine, for transvestites and transsexuals. Soon he ventured out to the association’s social club in Calgary. “It was amazing. For the first time in my life I was with people like myself! There were boyfriends, girlfriends, wives, straight people, gay people, and they weren’t freaks, they were just ordinary people living their lives.” Over the ensuing summer he erupted from the closet, coming out in a giddy rush to friends and family.
One bright, hot day in August, Ty Morgan, Roxanne’s drag mother, asked if she was ready to make her public debut. She was. “It’s hard for me to express how important Ty was to me,” says Roxy. “She didn’t just teach me about hair and make-up, as many drag mothers do, she told me about the life, and how to survive out there.” For Roxy’s debut, Ty would do her up so big, tarty, and dangerous that no one in their right mind would dare mess with her. She emerged in full daylight on a busy downtown street, a stunning spectacle in towering heels, spandex micro-miniskirt, tight gold top, show biz make-up, and hair to match. She had to walk four long blocks to reach her car. “People literally stopped in their tracks,” says Roxy. “Guys whistled from cars, construction workers hooted and hollered. But no one hassled me, not once, they just parted to make way. I had never experienced that kind of power before. It’s the power of glamour and drama.”
That same evening Roxy performed at a dyke bar. “Most of the lesbians had been pretty tough on transgendered people,” she says, “but I’d made some friends by then, selling drinks to help them raise funds at their dances and that kind of thing.” For most of the evening a young woman stayed close by Roxy, but said nothing until they sat down after the show. She didn’t know whether she was a boy or a girl, she said, but either way she hated herself. If only she could look as gorgeous as Roxy, even for one night, she’d be happy. “I just started to cry,” says Roxy. “She was so broken. Within a few hours I was hit by both sides of the beauty thing – in the afternoon by its power, and then by the pain it can cause when you don’t meet the standard. It took me a while to figure it out, but I knew there was something there that I wanted to challenge.”
The next day, she signed on as the first transgendered peer counsellor at the Lesbian and Gay Centre in Edmonton.