Nando Messias. Photograph by Loredana Denicola
Nando Messias marches through East London. Photograph: Loredana Denicola

Last year, wearing a red dress and high heels, Nando Messias returned to the street in Whitechapel where he had been attacked 10 years previously.

He once again caught the attention of a group of young men, and they once again hurled homophobic and transphobic abuse at him. But this time he was not alone.

Clutching a bunch of balloons, and flanked by a marching band, he led a 70-strong audience to the site of the initial attack, and the premiere of his new show, The Sissy’s Progress.

Following his attack Messias wanted to know what it was about him that had attracted the negative attention of those young men on that particular night.

Drawing on his training as a classical ballet dancer he realised that without the accessories of make-up or jewellery, it was his walk that clearly marked him out as effeminate.

At first he attempted to iron the habit out, but it didn’t work.

“It felt like I was trying to impersonate a butch woman, not even a man – it just doesn’t fit my body”, he says.

Originally from Brazil, Messias instead began celebrating his uniqueness, leading to the creation of his carnival-esque new work.

Messias identifies as a “male-bodied, effeminate man” and says: “I want my ‘misalignment’ to remain intact.”

Acutely aware of gender norms from an early age, his mother refused to allow him to join a ballet class along with his elder sister. But being consigned to the sidelines only increased his desire to dance.

On turning 17 he paid for classes himself, choosing the female role rather than the male in a discipline with the gender binary at its very core.

“Ballet is very segregated. Girls go first then boys go second. I have always done female technique. I’m not interested in learning the codes of masculinity. I’m interested in enhancing my body, not correcting it.”

Messias came to London to study, going on to complete a PhD on the effeminate body in Western culture.

In Brazil he suffered verbal abuse on a daily basis but never the physical abuse he suffered in London. But it doesn’t taint his enthusiasm for the city. “It’s a very, very tolerant place,” he says. “It’s a place that welcomes difference and eccentricity.”

Messias says he was glad that the audience was able to experience the abuse he had suffered first hand during that first show.

“They saw what it’s like to be laughed at. This kind of thing still happens, and they saw that.”

The Sissy’s Progress is at Toynbee Studios, 28 Commercial Street, E1 6AB from 17–18 March.

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