Jun 15, 2017

The Gondolier

What happens when doing what you want to do means giving up who you really are? 

We travel to Venice, Italy with reporters Kristen Clark and David Conrad, where they meet gondolier Alex Hai. On the winding canals in the hidden parts of Venice, we learn about the nearly 1000-year old tradition of the Venetian Gondolier, and how the global media created a 20-year battle between that tradition and a supposed feminist icon. 

Reported by David Conrad and Kristen Clark. Produced by Annie McEwen and Molly Webster.

Special thanks to Alexis Ungerer, Summer, Alex Hai, Kevin Gotkin, Silvia Del Fabbro, Sandro Mariot, Aldo Rosso and Marta Vannucci, The Longest Shortest Time (Hillary Frank, Peter Clowney and Abigail Keel), Tim Howard, Nick Adams/GLAAD, Valentina Powers, Florence Ursino, Ann Marie Somma, Alex Overington, Jeremy Bloom and the people of Little Italy. 

Support Radiolab by becoming a member today at Radiolab.org/donate.    

You can find Alex Hai's website here, where you can check out the photographs discussed in the piece. 

 

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[RadioLab Intro]

JAD ABUMRAD: Hey, I'm Jad Abumrad.

ROBERT KRULWICH: I'm Robert Krulwich.

JAD: This is Radiolab.

ROBERT: Today, we have the story of just how hard it can be to be who you actually are when it seems like the entire world is doing its best to make you who you actually aren't.

DAVID CONRAD: I guess I could—I mean, this could be too many details, but—

JAD: The story starts for us with reporter, David Conrad.

DAVID CONRAD: So for me, it was back in late 2014. I was living in Philadelphia as a grad student, and—

JAD: At the time, David was applying for jobs, and one of the jobs he was applying for was at a radio show that was doing a series about international women's issues.

DAVID CONRAD: And so I had this on my mind, and I was taking a bus to the university, and I just overheard somebody talking about their recent trip to Venice.

JAD: Of course, the classic tourist thing to do when you go to Venice is to take a ride on the canal boats, the gondolas. You know, go down the canal, maybe someone sings you a famous song. 

[opera singing] 

It's very romantic. In any case, the person sitting on the bus next to David was telling their friend—

DAVID CONRAD: That they had taken a gondola ride with this first-ever woman gondolier in Venice.

KRISTEN CLARK: Yeah. Then we were poking around, and we realized like how—

ROBERT: Wait, how does this become a we? Who are you?

KRISTEN CLARK: I'm Kristen—

JAD: Kristen Clark, also a journalist and radio producer. She and David are partners and collaborators.

KRISTEN CLARK: This is what was interesting, it's like we realized how big a deal it is to be a female gondolier. This is like a 900-year-old tradition.

ROBERT: 900 years?

KRISTEN CLARK: Yes.

DAVID CONRAD: All men.

KRISTEN CLARK: Yes, all men. And it's always passed father, son, father, son, father, son, or like uncle, nephew down the line.

ROBERT: So this has been no ladies now, no ladies then, no ladies ever?

KRISTEN CLARK: Yeah, yeah.

DAVID CONRAD: No ladies in 900 years.

JAD: Just think about that for a second. Almost 1,000 years of all men. Men, men, men, men, men, and then one day, you get a woman.

ROBERT: Right, as a headline, "Woman breaks through 900-year-old glass ceiling."

DAVID CONRAD: I thought that sounds like a good pitch.

ROBERT: Are you kidding? It sounds like God kissed you on the lips.

DAVID CONRAD: Yes, exactly. It sounded like the perfect empowerment story, I guess.

KRISTEN CLARK: Yes, and so we were just googling it, and like it's all over the media.

DAVID CONRAD: It seems like every outlet from The Guardian, to The New York Times, to the Financial Times, to the Cedar Rapids Gazette—

ROBERT: It made it all the way to Cedar Rapids?

DAVID CONRAD: Yeah, to newspapers in Germany, and China, and Australia. All the articles laid out the same basic story. It was this Algerian woman from Germany named Alex Hai who showed up in Venice 20 years ago, got around a gondoliers' association that never wanted to see a woman become a gondolier, and eventually became the first-ever female gondolier in Venice. The whole thing, of course, sparking this giant gender war. But that was sort of it. Pretty much the headline and the picture was the story. Many of the articles didn't actually have all that many quotes from Alex. And so for me, it sounded like a great, simple opportunity to go back and tell a deeper story.

KRISTEN CLARK: Yeah. Just like, who is this person? Why would somebody be so hellbent on getting into this club that just so clearly does not want them? So we—we emailed Alex.

DAVID CONRAD: Just, "We're interested in your story, we're wondering if you might be willing to spend a few days with us this summer?" I was hoping it would just be like, "Yes, I'm happy to meet with you for a couple of hours," and that would have been great, but we got an email back right away that said, "If you come do the story, you have to spend a week with me."

ROBERT: A week?

KRISTEN CLARK: Yes. Then there were all these questions about who we were as journalists, what our purpose was, and a bunch of demands. "You have to stay in the city. You can't stay in one of the suburbs in Marghera, even though it's cheaper. You have to be in the city. I want to hear these sounds at this time. I have a vision for things—"

ROBERT: Did you have the sense that there was something a little odd going on?

DAVID CONRAD: Yeah. The message was definitely, "I want to tell a different story."

JAD: Did you have any idea what that meant?

KRISTEN CLARK: No idea.

DAVID CONRAD: But we had that—I had that echoing in my head.

KRISTEN CLARK: All right. Do you want to switch backpacks, since I gave you the heavy one?

DAVID CONRAD: So we flew to the Venice Airport, took a bus to city center. Stepped off the bus, and you could smell the salt in the air from the Grand Canal. It was raining a little bit, it was around midnight.

KRISTEN CLARK: We're getting our bearings, grabbing our bags, we look up, and across the parking lot, there's Alex.

DAVID CONRAD: Standing under a lamppost, just leaning against it with a cigarette.

KRISTEN CLARK: Smoke curling up into the light of the street lamp.

DAVID CONRAD: Short hair, dark, it was slicked back.

ROBERT: Did you think you were in a Fellini movie?

DAVID CONRAD: Honestly, I didn't know what to think. This person was legit under a lamp, smoking.

ALEX HAI: Hi.

DAVID CONRAD: How are you?

ALEX HAI: I'm good.

DAVID CONRAD: Thank you so much for meeting us.

ALEX HAI: [unintelligible]

DAVID CONRAD: So quick.

KRISTEN CLARK: Up-close, Alex looked taller than I expected. Strong build, kind of a face that was a little weathered, like someone who works outside all day on the water.

ALEX HAI: I was finishing quite late, so when you called, I had just finished—

KRISTEN CLARK: Oh, perfect.

ALEX HAI: How was your flight?

DAVID CONRAD: It was good. It was long. We flew to Moscow first, which is—

ALEX HAI: All right. How was the airport in Moscow?

KRISTEN CLARK: Since it was late, we made a plan with Alex to meet up at 5:45 PM the next day on the steps of La Fenice Opera House.

ROBERT: Okay, a beautiful little opera house.

KRISTEN CLARK: Yes.

ALEX HAI: I was rushing out to find you, so I left all the mess in the gondola. Usually, it's not like this.

KRISTEN CLARK: Anyway, the plan was to go out on a gondola ride.

DAVID CONRAD: Which was one of Alex's demands in that first email. So we walk around the corner to where the gondola is parked, and—

KRISTEN CLARK: Oh, my God. The boat was just like shining.

ALEX HAI: The gondola was made for three people—

DAVID CONRAD: It was long, narrow, jet black.

ALEX HAI: This was where the noble couple was sitting-

KRISTEN CLARK: Antique cushions, golden trim.

ALEX HAI: and over there, there was a servant sitting.

KRISTEN CLARK: Alex had had it about 12 years-

ALEX HAI: It was already quite an old boat when I got it.

KRISTEN CLARK: and it had a name.

ALEX HAI: This is called Pegasus.

KRISTEN CLARK: Pegasus.

DAVID CONRAD: You chose it?

ALEX HAI: Yes.

DAVID CONRAD: Yes, of course.

ALEX HAI: All right, so if you want to come in, one step—

KRISTEN CLARK: We climb into the boat—

ALEX HAI: Perfect. Sit in a little angle there—

[music]

KRISTEN CLARK: And Alex stands at the back holding the oar, and we're down sitting in the lower seats, kind of just pointing the microphone up.

Alex, I know you were just telling us how annoying it is when people snap pictures. Is it okay if I take photographs every once in a while?

[music distorts and stops]

ALEX HAI: No.

[lively music begins]

KRISTEN CLARK: You came here to study at first?

ALEX HAI: No, that's not what I said.

[music distorts and stops]

KRISTEN CLARK: It was pretty much immediately clear—

You came here, I mean… 

—that it was not going to be an easy interview.

[lively music starts]

You came here—When you studied, I know, but I was wondering—

ALEX HAI: Yes, the gondola and the rowing, you need to do a lot of practice.

[music distorts and stops]

KRISTEN CLARK: Right right.

DAVID CONRAD: We had a notebook full of questions and things that we had pulled from all these articles we'd read, and that pretty quickly became useless.

KRISTEN CLARK: So what I was asking though is, you didn’t come…

KRISTEN CLARK: Whenever I asked about being the first female gondolier–The first woman in 900 years to do this.

ALEX HAI: Oh, that's an old story.

KRISTEN CLARK: What's that?

ALEX HAI: You can really read that everywhere on the net. It's such an over and over and over and over— It's all said already. Why would I need to repeat things which are already done?

ROBERT: This is a very frequent journalism problem. You become boring to the person you are interviewing, and you start flailing.

KRISTEN CLARK: Exactly, and we were. We were like, "Uh—"

ALEX HAI: You don't have anything more?

KRISTEN CLARK: No.

DAVID CONRAD: It's why we're here—

ROBERT: What do you do?

DAVID CONRAD: You know, we just thought maybe we should just be quiet, probably.

KRISTEN CLARK: [whispering] We are about to make the tightest turn I have ever seen in a 30-foot boat.

[water splashing]

KRISTEN CLARK: We moved away from the tourist centers of the city and into these smaller canals, and—

ALEX HAI: [sings]

KRISTEN CLARK: As we go around these tight turns—

ALEX HAI: [sings]

KRISTEN CLARK: Alex would sing out to let the other boats know that we were coming.

ALEX HAI: Ahoy. So here, we're at a crossway, this is why I shout out my direction in order to avoid accidents, because you cannot hear the gondola arriving.

KRISTEN CLARK: We go under these beautiful archways-

ALEX HAI: [sings]

KRISTEN CLARK: Past hidden gardens…

ALEX HAI: You don't necessarily need eyes in order to appreciate a gondola tour. Every channel has a different sound. Some channels here have a lot of birds singing. Sometimes they fly in your face. This is a beautiful entrance here I wanted to show you.

KRISTEN CLARK: At one point, our gondola cut through this rectangle of light shining from an open kitchen door.

[dog barking]

DAVID CONRAD: It was nice. This side of Venice was unexpected and really beautiful, but the whole time, we were sitting on our notepads, and we were definitely quietly panicking.

ALEX HAI: Well, you know, then…

KRISTEN CLARK: I didn't know this at the time, but—

ALEX HAI: And so there were some— It was like, "Maybe you're a little too young."

KRISTEN CLARK: I think Alex was testing us.

ALEX HAI: "and maybe a little bit too [unintelligible]. You don't have enough experience maybe." That was my concern, but I liked the enthusiasm, and I liked the—There was an honesty which I liked.

JAD: Did you ever figure out what you were being sussed out for, or what was going on there?

KRISTEN CLARK: No. For sure, not on the boat, but we actually made plans to go out to dinner that night.

DAVID CONRAD: And considering how the boat ride went, we thought, "At this point, we should return to square one and leave the recorder at home, and just try and have a conversation."

KRISTEN CLARK: Right. Anyway, we sit down outside, and very few people were in the restaurant, we were the only table outside. They had to open [crosstalk]

DAVID CONRAD: When we got there too, we should say we met Alex's girlfriend, right?

KRISTEN CLARK: Yes, and we were making—I think we were just making small talk, and it turns out Alex's girlfriend is a photographer. She had done this photo essay of Alex, and the photos are really striking. Like one of them, Alex is just like drowning under the water. There's one that's just like, Alex's back is to the camera.

DAVID CONRAD: This ripped, muscular back.

KRISTEN CLARK: Yes. Like arms splayed, like looking out the window over the city of Venice.

DAVID CONRAD: Venice's lone defender.

KRISTEN CLARK: Just like so badass, and kind of like superhero-style. We were just chatting about the photos and asking Alex's girlfriend like, "Can you tell me a little bit more about what inspired you to take these photos?" Like small talk, friendly stuff, and she was like—You know, it's so strange, we thought it was so clear, the photos were so—Like, they emphasized every masculine quality on Alex's body.

In our artist's statement, we used all of the male forms in Italian. Like lui, which means he, instead of lei, which means she, but everybody at the photo exhibit was like, "Oh, it must have been a typo, or you made a mistake," and she was like, "Which is funny, because I'm Italian, so I should know." I was like, "Oh, pronouns, lui, he, Alex—She used he. Alex is a he? Is Alex trans—" Like, "Oh my gosh, Alex is a transgender man."

ROBERT: Woah. What did that mean to you in that moment?

KRISTEN CLARK: What I thought that meant was, Alex was probably born in a body that he didn't identify with.

DAVID CONRAD: Mine was—I didn't think transgender. I didn't think—I thought, "Alex is a guy, of course. Alex is a guy."

KRISTEN CLARK: Really?

DAVID CONRAD: Yes, I wasn't surprised. Were you surprised?

KRISTEN CLARK: No.

DAVID CONRAD: I wasn't that— I mean, I'm not saying that the pronouns [crosstalk]—

KRISTEN CLARK: Right. I mean, I would say that flipping into he, not a thing. It was like, "Alex is a he. He is sitting at the table with us, Alex and his girlfriend." Very quickly, it was like, "Him, I'm looking at him," and then I start thinking about the story that we had come here to tell that was about all of the women things that she had done. Her, her, her, her, woman, hero, heroine, first female in 900 years, international symbol of female power. 

You start thinking about that, and it's like, those things are really hard to square in your head. This real person is also these stories, and how did that happen? What has it been like for 20 years to be inside of that story when you're actually a man?

[music]

JAD: After who knows how many articles have been written about Alex, this is the first time that he is publicly telling his story as a man, and so we should probably just stop for a second and talk about pronouns because this is really important for many transgender people. In moments when Alex was publicly understood as a woman and was getting international press for it, we've decided with Alex's permission to only use his name or his title of first female gondolier. While some of the people interviewed for the story were unaware that Alex is transgender and do use female pronouns or do refer to him as a woman, when we're talking about him, we will only use male pronouns.

DAVID CONRAD: After that dinner, we made plans for the next day on this motorboat. He would just take us to a quiet spot, and we would talk, was the agreement..

ROBERT: On the water?

DAVID CONRAD: On the water.

[turkeys clucking]

ALEX HAI: Shut up. Stop it. [Italian language] 

ROBERT: Okay, and how does that begin?

DAVID CONRAD: A lot of false starts.

ALEX HAI: [chuckles] Okay, you can sit down.

DAVID CONRAD: I don't know, maybe I can ask, has anyone ever asked you what gender pronoun you prefer?

ALEX HAI: No, never. Never, ever.

DAVID CONRAD: After getting some of the basics out of the way, Alex started at the beginning.

ALEX HAI: Well, it's a long story. I was born transgender—

KRISTEN CLARK: This is in Germany. Alex tells us he was born with a female body, but at a pretty early age, knew himself to be a little boy.

ALEX HAI: I knew already before I went to school. With three years, I was standing on the toilet to pee inside.

KRISTEN CLARK: Alex says that, for him, he had the sense even when he was three that there should just be something on his body that wasn't there.

ALEX HAI: I was praying for penis every night. My parents knew about it.

KRISTEN CLARK: His parents were actually both doctors.

ALEX HAI: They knew, but they were not supportive. I heard them, they were talking about all the weird stuff I did.

DAVID CONRAD: How he would rip the arms off of his Barbies.

ALEX HAI: Cutting them with a black pencil, destroying them and—

DAVID CONRAD: Or the way Alex dressed himself.

ALEX HAI: When there was a swimming lesson in the school, I was there only with little pants, or you'd call them a bath suit for boys. And I was, of course, very aggressive as a child.

DAVID CONRAD: A lot of fights.

ALEX HAI: I was quite violent as a kid. Now, I can laugh about this, but it was a drama at home. It was a drama, the constant try of my mother to get this behavior out of me.

KRISTEN CLARK: Alex says, pretty early on, his parents basically gave up on him.

ALEX HAI: They ignored me as much as they could, which was—In a way, it was saving me, because I could wear whatever I wanted, I could do whatever I wanted.

KRISTEN CLARK: Then when Alex was 10, a little brother was born.

ALEX HAI: That was a shock. That was a terrible shock because, basically, it confirmed that my mother wanted desperately a boy, but she didn't accept me as her son. That's what it was.

KRISTEN CLARK: Alex said, basically, that was the first time he saw what it should look like, basically, when a parent loves their kid.

DAVID CONRAD: When he was 15, he ran away from home.

ALEX HAI: I escaped to Hamburg. In Hamburg, you have a huge district called St. Pauli, where they have all the prostitutes, and all the bad things, and that's exactly where I went.

KRISTEN CLARK: Some people took him under their wing. He got a job, kind of figured out how to take care of himself.

ALEX HAI: I got lucky, but I know also very unlucky stories, but I got lucky.

JAD: Did he ever think about transitioning to a male body?

KRISTEN CLARK: He says he thought about it at one point.

ALEX HAI: But in the '80s, when I was 15, the opportunities you had to become a man were very, very poor.

KRISTEN CLARK: In particular, if you wanted to go down the road of surgery—

ALEX HAI: What I can remember for my family was constant talks about how operations went wrong. How they went wrong, and what went wrong, and so for me to go in a hospital to do an operation, it was not going to happen.

KRISTEN CLARK: Of course, many transgender people don't end up having surgery. Anyway, after Hamburg, at some point, Alex fell into filmmaking, and ended up in San Francisco working in the film industry. In 1996, he got involved in a production that sent him abroad to go scope out locations for a film that was going to be shot in Venice.

[music]

KRISTEN CLARK: He shows up in Venice in 1996.

ROBERT: How old is he around at this point?

KRISTEN CLARK: 29, I think.

ROBERT: Oh, so he's older.

KRISTEN CLARK: He's not a kid at this point. Originally, he's just supposed to stay a few days, just enough time to do some research and scope things out. Somewhere along the way, he sees these guys rowing their boats down the canal, and for reasons he can't entirely explain, he's just transfixed.

[music]

ALEX HAI: I was fascinated by this kind of boat, and I was fascinated by the rowing style, that you row forward, so you actually see where you're going. I was just fascinated, and I just wanted to try it out myself.

KRISTEN CLARK: Eventually. Alex ends up actually meeting a gondolier and asks, "Do you think I could do this?" and he actually ended up down at the gondola station as an apprentice.

KRISTEN CLARK: Did they ask you why you wanted to study?

ALEX HAI: I remember the first day, I was introduced by the head boss of the group, "Okay, this is Alex. She's going to be our mascot."

DAVID CONRAD: Because they saw Alex as a woman, and there had never been a woman gondolier.

ALEX HAI: Most of them thought for sure this was kind of a joke. There was a very old man who later said, "Now, we have a gondolier with tits."

DAVID CONRAD: For the first several months, Alex says he basically just picked up after the guys.

ALEX HAI: You were the busboy for everybody. You needed to clean their boats and to ship out the water like 10, 20 times a day.

KRISTEN CLARK: He says it's really backbreaking, grueling work. For somebody that everybody sees as a woman, you'd think this would be like the worst place on Earth, but actually—

DAVID CONRAD: Those first months in the city, just with the boys, dirty jokes—

ALEX HAI: I thought, "This is great."

[music]

KRISTEN CLARK: Alex knew all the gondoliers' nicknames, walked and talked and acted like them, and cursed in the same way. He says he felt like he was part of this tradition of learning from these old guys who were mentors to him.

ALEX HAI: It was really like maybe the best time of my life.

KRISTEN CLARK: It was like he was home.

ALEX HAI: Then the trouble began.

DAVID CONRAD: It started with a journalist—

CONSUELO: [speaks in Italian].

DAVID CONRAD: This is reporter, Consuelo [unintelligible]. We met in a noisy cafe-

TRANSLATOR: It all started in 1996-

DAVID CONRAD: —with a translator.

TRANSLATOR: When Consuelo was a collaborator of La Nuova Venezia

DAVID CONRAD: She was a cub reporter in Venice, working for a very politically progressive newspaper, and she was out looking for her big story.

ROBERT: And she runs into her—How did they encounter each other?

CONSUELO: [speaks in Italian].

KRISTEN CLARK: Consuelo saw Alex at one of the gondolier stations, and she was like—

[music]

KRISTEN CLARK: Whoa.

TRANSLATOR: Because obviously, this struck her attention and—

CONSUELO: [speaks in Italian].

KRISTEN CLARK: It looked to her like there was this woman rowing among men, and seeming to kind of blend right in.

CONSUELO: [speaks in Italian].

TRANSLATOR: Consuelo was attracted by this unusual vision for Venice, so she observed her—

CONSUELO: [speaks in Italian].

KRISTEN CLARK: She said, "I camped out for like a whole morning and basically just watched Alex's behavior."

DAVID CONRAD: But Alex didn't want to talk.

ALEX HAI: I told her I can't talk about it.

DAVID CONRAD: Told her basically, "I'm just a student, they're teaching me. Don't make this into a thing."

CONSUELO: [speaks in Italian].

KRISTEN CLARK: Consuelo said, "Listen, I recognize that you don't want to talk to me. That you're apprehensive, and that this might be difficult, and I get that this might even damage your reputation with the other gondoliers, but this is an important story. You're a pioneer, I can't ignore you."

DAVID CONRAD: So, Consuelo said—

ALEX HAI: There are two options.

DAVID CONRAD: "I'm going to write the story no matter what. You can either talk to me and we can do the story together, or I can write what I think."

ALEX HAI: That was the offer. I said, "It can't go out now," and she said, "It will. It will"

ROBERT: Why wasn't Consuelo persuaded that she should wait?

ALEX HAI: Well, there were journalists coming from all over the place.

KRISTEN CLARK: I think the story was going to get out there, and somebody was going to write it.

DAVID CONRAD: Alex never stopped and was like, "Listen, Consuelo, or whoever, let me just tell you the real story."

ROBERT: The way out of this is to speak, and yet he stays quiet.

KRISTEN CLARK: Right.

JAD: Did you have a sense why?

KRISTEN CLARK: Just to give some data points that might be helpful in understanding where we were, we're talking 1997—Just to give you like a corollary thing, where we were in our discourse around LGBT issues was like—Ellen DeGeneres I think that year came out on her show.

[ARCHIVAL CLIP, the Ellen show, Ellen DeGeneres: This is so hard, but I think I've realized that I am—I can't even say the word. Why can't I say the word?]

KRISTEN CLARK: —and like shortly after, it was canceled. Caitlyn Jenner was just a few years ago— Like, we didn't even really have a grip on what transgender was. That wasn't a conversation that we were having in public. Can you imagine what it would be like to be like, "Guys, guys, guys, don't worry though, I'm actually a man." [chuckles] That wouldn't have gone over so well with the dudes at the gondola station.

JAD: Yes, so what ended up happening after Consuelo and Alex had the showdown about the article?

KRISTEN CLARK: Well, a couple of days later, Alex was on the way to the gondola station—

ALEX HAI: I found it in the newspaper shop—

DAVID CONRAD: The headline-

[NEWS CLIP: [Italian language]]

[NEWS CLIP: [Italian language]]

DAVID CONRAD: "A woman is challenging the gondoliers."

ALEX HAI: I was like, "Oh my God, this is going to be hell."

KRISTEN CLARK: It's in the newspaper stand, Alex shows up at the gondolier station, and of course, there is a big, "Hello."

ROBERT: A big unfriendly, "Hello."

KRISTEN CLARK: Yes. Just like, "Oh, hello, gondoliera."

ALEX HAI: Those boys, they got really, really angry. They were like, "We do everything to teach you well, and now you're challenging us."

KRISTEN CLARK: Alex says a lot of the gondoliers stopped talking to him. They wouldn't even let him wash their boats.

ALEX HAI: Then of course, there were the ones who said, "I told you in the beginning, blah, blah, blah—"

KRISTEN CLARK: "I told you she was just going to blab to the press."

ALEX HAI: "A woman is not a good thing—" Then the whole thing was like this little stone becoming a huge, huge thing.

KRISTEN CLARK: By the way, this is coming right before Alex is about to take the very first exam. 

ROBERT: Oh no…

KRISTEN CLARK: There's actually a series of exams, and it gets a little complicated, but eventually, anybody who wants to be a gondolier has to take this rowing test.

DAVID CONRAD: And by all accounts, Alex was good.

KRISTEN CLARK: We talked to the guy who was the head of the gondoliers' association at that time—

FULVIO SCARPA: Alex Hai—

KRISTEN CLARK: This guy, Fulvio Scarpa, was like—

FULVIO SCARPA: Alex, for me, is more good than the other men gondoliers.

JAD: This is the head of the guild?

KRISTEN CLARK: Yes. We also talked to this legendary rower named Franco Crea—

FRANCO CREA: [speaks in Italian]

KRISTEN CLARK: —and he was also like, "Alex is better than most of the guys."

KRISTEN CLARK: Anyway, Alex takes the test, and—

ALEX HAI: I failed the exam.

KRISTEN CLARK: Which wouldn't have been— That by itself wouldn't have been such a big deal because a whole bunch of people fail the first exam, but the thing was, there was a feeling that something deeply unfair was happening.

CONSUELO: [speaks in Italian]

DAVID CONRAD: According to Consuelo, a lot of people started to think, maybe the fix was in.

ALEX HAI: There were other boys there who failed, who were better than other boys who did not fail—

KRISTEN CLARK: Alex says, suspiciously, pretty much all the people that passed were sons of gondoliers or from gondolier families.

ALEX HAI: -because they had the right last name. Then I got angry, I got a lawyer—

DAVID CONRAD: Alex thought this was going to bring attention to how corrupt the licensing practice is, how corrupt this association is.

ALEX HAI: I wanted that the exam is repeated for everybody.

KRISTEN CLARK: This lawyer was negotiating, and the gondoliers' association was like, "If we let everyone retake the test, that will basically be admitting that we favor certain families over other families."

ALEX HAI: That was exactly what I wanted.

DAVID CONRAD: But it's not what they wanted.

KRISTEN CLARK: They said, "We don't want the bad press of this," but then— And this is another moment, according to Alex, where his story just gets hijacked.

ALEX HAI: My lawyer negotiated without my permission—

KRISTEN CLARK: According to Alex, without telling him, the lawyer together with the gondoliers' association dug up this old law that says, because Alex is a woman— I mean, he's not, he's a man, but they thought he was a woman, and this law says that as a woman, he had the right to take the test again, this time with women judges in the boat.

When she came back and said, "Okay, here's what we're going to do," do you remember what you said?

ALEX HAI: I was pissed. I was very upset. That was not what I wanted. It has nothing to do with man or woman.

KRISTEN CLARK: Do you think she was your champion because she identified with you?

ALEX HAI: Yes, for sure, but it was not my story, it was her story.

DAVID CONRAD: Unfortunately for Alex, as soon as the lawyer did that, it became everyone's story.

ALEX HAI: Oh, yes, because-

DAVID CONRAD: The press—

ALEX HAI: They ran with it.

[music]

DAVID CONRAD: In the next few months, every paper in town was writing about it.

[NEWS CLIP: Suspended by a gondoliers' examination–]

[NEWS CLIP: Alexandra misses the exam—]

[NEWS CLIP: The gondola banned from foreigners–]

DAVID CONRAD: Then, the story went global.

[NEWS CLIP: German catches a [unintelligible] in her bid to become Venice's first woman gondolier.]

[NEWS CLIP: Sexists sink first female gondolier.]

[NEWS CLIP: Girl gondolier fights a male tradition.]

[NEWS CLIP: Failed gondolier blames chauvinism.]

KRISTEN CLARK: Then things escalate into a full-blown gender battle. The gondoliers were, of course, super-pissed because of all this press that they were getting. We talked to a couple of key gondolier guys, they had some thoughts and feelings about him.

GONDOLIER 1: Alexandra? No, no, no. She had to pass the test, and she didn't.

GONDOLIER 2: It's a disaster.

KRISTEN CLARK: Alex says, at one point, things got so bad—

ALEX HAI: That there was one of them who was saying, "I'm going to wait for you in a small little street with a knife, and I'm going to kill you," so I grabbed the guy and I said, "Where's your knife? I'm here. Get it out. Do it." That was one episode. There are many others.

KRISTEN CLARK: On the one side, Alex said he has gondoliers wanting to knife him, on the other—

ALEX HAI: It was terrible, because then feminism kicked in and—

KRISTEN CLARK: Alex said he had all these women rushing in to save him because they thought he was a she.

JANE CAPORAL: We read in the paper that she had tried to take the test and had failed, and had called foul saying that the Venetians were mean and sexist and wouldn't let women become gondoliers—

KRISTEN CLARK: This is Jane Caporal, she was active in the community of Venetian women rowers at the time.

ROBERT: What women, by the way? There weren't any—

KRISTEN CLARK: Well, there weren't any women gondoliers at that time, but there's a whole community of female rowers. They have teams, and they race.

JANE CAPORAL: I've been doing Venetian rowing for over 20 years.

KRISTEN CLARK: And being a female rower in Venice—

JANE CAPORAL: It was very difficult.

KRISTEN CLARK: Elena, this woman rower I was talking to—

ELENA: Last week, I was with my rowing partners—

KRISTEN CLARK: —was like, "I'm routinely— When I'm out on the water, old men yell at me and say—

ELENA: "Hey, what are you doing? Return back home in the kitchen, cooking, or cleaning your house. Why are you here?"

JANE CAPORAL: Don't you know you're just a contorno? You're just a side dish."

KRISTEN CLARK: They both told me, when it comes to racing, there's a big discrepancy in the prize money.

JANE CAPORAL: The men are getting like four times as much prize money as the women.

ELENA: We are now trying to convince the city of Venice who gives prizes that we are like men, we are not less than them.

KRISTEN CLARK: We hear all these women who have been incrementally busting their ass to try to be taken seriously in the sport.

ELENA: We are here, we can do this.

KRISTEN CLARK: And when they saw all this press about Alex fighting the gondoliers, they reached out.

JANE CAPORAL: I sent one of the other [unintelligible] down to speak to her, "Come to our club and come and work with us and help us out, help us teach people—"

KRISTEN CLARK: "We've got your back."

Elena: But she wasn't interested.

ALEX HAI: No, of course not.

KRISTEN CLARK: Because for Alex, there were two problems. First of all—

ALEX HAI: You cannot compare the gondolier rowers with the racing rowers.

KRISTEN CLARK: They are two different styles of rowing. Second of all, the sense I got was that it was kind like, "I don't want to row with you. You guys all wear matching white skirts. Not my thing."

JANE CAPORAL: I remember there was a lot of resentment.

ELENA: You're a woman, how can't you be one of us in this battle for equality?

ALEX HAI: Some people, they see me, and then they're convinced that I'm a feminist, that I am one of them, and I'm not.

DAVID CONRAD: All of this comes to a head in October of 2004 when Alex has to retake the test, and this time, with champion women rowers in the boat, judging him.

ALEX HAI: There was a lot of pressure.

KRISTEN CLARK: Everything about this test is supposed to be a secret. The location of the test, the path that Alex is going to row—

ALEX HAI: I had no clue where we were going to go.

KRISTEN CLARK: But suspiciously, as Alex stepped into the boat, he noticed that—

ALEX HAI: There was a huge crowd—

KRISTEN CLARK: Lined up all the way down the canal.

ALEX HAI: Gondoliers and their friends.

KRISTEN CLARK: They were shouting and yelling.

ALEX HAI: People were screaming all kinds of swear words and all kinds of, "Go home." You cannot imagine the hate.

[crowd yelling] 

KRISTEN CLARK: He had female rowers in the boat glaring at him, there was press lined up along the entire way.

ALEX HAI: Plus the tourists, plus everybody, it was full of people. I felt like I'm in a ring. I tried to block it all out because I needed to do an exam. I wanted to do a good performance, and I wasn't able. It was hell, one of the worst days of my entire life. I don't wish that to nobody. That was real hell.

[sound fades]

[DAVID: This is David from Berlin. Radiolab is supported in part by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, enhancing public understanding of science and technology in the modern world. More information about Sloan at www.sloan.org.]

 

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JAD: Hey, I'm Jad Abumrad.

ROBERT: I'm Robert Krulwich. This is Radiolab.

JAD: We turn now to a story from Kristen Clark and David Conrad about Alex Hai, a transgender man who became somehow the first female gondoliera in 923 years, and thus, an international feminist hero sensation.

ROBERT: We now find Alex being painted by everybody in town in colors that he doesn't particularly agree with.

JAD: Yes, and what's interesting, according to Kristen, is just how easy it is to do that to someone.

KRISTEN CLARK: I'll tell you, as we were doing the interviewing and the recording, I'm like— I'm feeling like I have a good grip on Alex's story. I'm feeling like, "Oh, man, I know what it feels like to be inside of a narrative that feels really icky," and so I feel like I'm kind of getting it, and I'm understanding the full Alex, and like it's about all of these other things that have nothing to do with gender. Alex's story isn't about gender at all.

For me, that made sense, because I was like, in my life, gender has been a box. Even when you're in the right box, gender is a box, and it can feel shitty to be in that box, and so I was like, "Yes, let's bust open those boxes together. We're going to show people who you are, Alex," but then we would have these moments where I would be like, "Hmm, wait a second—" Like, one night when we were in Venice, we were trying to park our boat on the way to a restaurant, and this guy is trying to parallel park his boat, and Alex is sitting there chuckling at him, and you can hear David chuckling in the background. The two of them are joking about it, and then Alex says, "He drives like a woman."

ALEX HAI: Like an old lady. [chuckles]

KRISTEN CLARK: I was like, ughh, and then kind of rolled my eyes at it. Then later at the dinner, he was like, "You know though, I don't really think that a real woman could do this job," and he was all like macho about it.

ALEX HAI: Yes, I remember you were shocked that I was saying such a macho thing, I remember that. Of course, you are very right. Women can do everything, but this job is going to be very tough because it's a real cruel community. I mean, just very cruel and rough.

KRISTEN CLARK: When you said that, I got so— I was so frustrated, and it was because I think I was attached to the idea of it being equal, you know? I was just super confused, like [ugghh] I don't know. I just want to know [crosstalk]—

ALEX HAI: What do you want to know exactly? No, tell me what you want to know exactly?

KRISTEN CLARK: I'll admit, in the moment, I asked a kind of clumsy question. 

Do you feel— 

It was just because you seemed to be almost prodding me, having fun, and winking at David. 

Do you feel like you're fundamentally on a different team from me?

ALEX HAI: Okay— [sighs] I am on David's team, but you can't see that because you identify with me, but that is not the— I can't help that. How can I explain it to you? Let's put it this way, when I'm in a group of women, for example, and they start to talk, I feel uncomfortable. The chattings they have, I call it chicken chat, it's not really my cup of tea. I like it, it can amuse me, but the minute they think that I am one of them, it doesn't amuse me anymore. Then I feel uncomfortable, and I'm a little alien there because they think I am one of them and I'm not. When I'm with the boys, I feel comfortable. If it is a nice group of boys which I like, then we have the same type of humor, the same stupid jokes about women.

KRISTEN CLARK: For Alex, I think what was really striking is that whatever it is that makes him feel comfortable being seen as a man but not as a woman, it runs very deep.

ALEX HAI: For me, there is a difference between men and women.

KRISTEN CLARK: Not everybody or even every transgender person would feel this way, but the way that he sees it, if there were no differences—

ALEX HAI: There would be no wish to do transition, and there would be no transsexuality and things like that if it would be the same, but it isn't.

JAD: You were seeing him as a gender-doesn't-matter kind of icon, and he was saying, actually, it does matter.

KRISTEN CLARK: Yeah.

JAD: Can I just ask a simpler question? When does he actually become the first female gondolier?

KRISTEN CLARK: Alex couldn't get one of these 400 or so special gondoliers' licenses because he failed the test, but—

ALEX HAI: In 2005, I opened up my own business.

KRISTEN CLARK: He figured out that if he partner's up with businesses in town like hotels, he can actually row for them privately.

ALEX HAI: At the time, I was looking at all the laws, and I found that it was possible to open up my own business without having a license, so I did.

DAVID CONRAD: And so, for years, he was just doing this quietly.

ALEX HAI: Then—

GONDOLIER 3: Alexandra, she's not a gondolier.

GONDOLIER 4: She's not a gondolier, she works for a hotel.

DAVID CONRAD: Some of the gondoliers began to notice that Alex was rowing passengers without a license, and of course, they didn't like it.

GONDOLIER 5: She didn't pass the test.

KRISTEN CLARK: Saying like, "You can't do that."

GONDOLIER 6: She's not part of our team.

GONDOLIER 7: She does not have a driver's license.

KRISTEN CLARK: You have to be a member of this organization, you have to have a specific license in order to practice.

GONDOLIER 8: What we can say, she's not a gondola driver.

ALEX HAI: I got some threats, verbal threats, and damaging the gondola, and things like that, all kinds of stupid little boy shit. When they understood they cannot threaten me this way, then they pressured City Hall to change the law.

KRISTEN CLARK: City Hall basically said, "You can't row a gondola with tourists in it without a license."

ROBERT: And the law passed and it was signed and it became the real law?

KRISTEN CLARK: Yes, and so one day Alex is out on his boat, and he just gets pulled over, and basically is told, "You're breaking this new law."

ALEX HAI: I wanted to defend myself, so we went on trial—

DAVID CONRAD: In court, it was Alex, his one lawyer, City Hall and the gondoliers' association, their four lawyers.

ALEX HAI: Four lawyers. [chuckles] I thought, "This is a lost case already," but City Hall lost.

DAVID CONRAD: City Hall fights back—

KRISTEN CLARK: Case goes to the highest court in the land—

ALEX HAI: They lost again, [chuckles] in front of a court with me, a little stranger from out of nowhere.

KRISTEN CLARK: Now, technically the decision just said, "Hotels can provide for their customers the way that they need to, so if they want to hire a chauffeur, who happens to row in a gondola, they can do that." What that actually meant was that now for the first time, Alex could be considered a gondolier.

[music]

ALEX HAI: That was a huge deal. Massive.

[NEWS CLIP: Along the canals, a woman paddles against the tide.]

ALEX HAI: The New York Times came in.

[NEWS CLIP: Woman takes on Venice gondola cartel.]

ALEX HAI: Chicago Tribune came in.

[NEWS CLIP: First female gondolier rocks the boat.]

ALEX HAI: Le Monde came in—

KRISTEN CLARK: This is where we get all of those articles we read before we came to Venice.

ALEX HAI: The story went all over the world.

DAVID CONRAD: And every single one—

[NEWS CLIP: Brava gondolier. Brava.]

DAVID CONRAD: —the message was the same, "We have our first woman gondolier."

[music]

ALEX HAI: That was something, it was unstoppable. I could not go in there and say, "Excuse me, I'm not really identifying—" No, it was done.

KRISTEN CLARK: Alex, at this point in 2007, doesn't have any other income except for being able to market himself through hotels, and eventually, online.

ALEX HAI: And so, of course, I need to have a website.

KRISTEN CLARK: People are actively seeking out this person who has broken the gender barrier and become the first female gondolier in Venice.

ALEX HAI: It would have been stupid to try to go against all this. It was already written.

DAVID CONRAD: Alex decides to make his email, his Facebook page, and his website Al Prima Gondoliera, or the first female gondolier.

I'm wondering if creating a website with that name, did that feel like you taking control of that narrative, or was that narrative taking control of your decision on that website?

ALEX HAI: It has nothing to do with what I want. [chuckles] It's a label. I cannot change a label who has 20 years of history— [ducks quacking] Shut up.

KRISTEN CLARK: Alex told us he was talking to his therapist one day at this transgender center they have near Venice.

ALEX HAI: She said, "You are like in a cage. This is like a cage for you, you can’t get really out of this." It's a difficult situation. It's a very difficult situation, but—I'm tired. [chuckles]

[music]

KRISTEN CLARK: By the time we met Alex, he'd been living almost 10 years like this, just kind of between these two stories. At night, out to his close friends, but by day, giving these tours as the first female gondolier in Venice.

DAVID CONRAD: Every few months, every new tourist season, these headlines would just regenerate: First female gondolier, first female gondolier, first female gondolier…

KRISTEN CLARK: When we left Venice, that's kind of where we left him, hanging in the middle of that. The impression that we got is, maybe that's just going to be how it always is for him, but then—

ALEX HAI: It's quite a while, we didn't see each other, so—

KRISTEN CLARK: Fast-forward six months, we get an email from Alex. He says he's in San Francisco.

I think things have been happening in your life.

ALEX HAI: Yes.

DAVID CONRAD: He had some news.

ALEX HAI: Well, I remember when we were last talking in Venice, and we were sitting on the terrace, I remember that I was already in— I knew there was something coming, but I wasn't sure what it was. It was a very difficult year, I was kind of depressed, which— I'm not a depressed person, usually. I was not moving much. I was hanging out on my sofa, and I was trying to think, and more and more every day, I was unhappy about people telling me that I was a she and not a he. I don't know why I got completely intolerant. Before, I was like, "I don't care what they say to me. I care that they're nice," and now I was just like, "I can't hear this anymore. This is so wrong."

DAVID CONRAD: Alex was about to turn 50 at this point, and it turns out that part of what was happening was that he was beginning to go through the early stages of menopause.

ALEX HAI: I was hot, I was tired, sweat breaking out for nothing.

KRISTEN CLARK: After fighting with the gondoliers, fighting with the feminists, this was like a final insult.

ALEX HAI: I have this idea that hormones might help with how I feel. I start to take the testosterone, that was on the 7th of November, which after six hours, I get the first smile on my face in nearly a year. You know, I felt good, and the mood swings, they stopped. Now, I'm like a new me, because I was looking in the mirror every day and I was like, "Who's this monster?"

KRISTEN CLARK: He decided to fly to San Francisco to meet with a doctor.

ALEX HAI: Some people wait like two years or three years before they start to do a surgery, I wanted to do it now because, for me, it was something like now or never. Now, I'm here in San Francisco, I’ve had top surgery on the 24th, that's about four days ago, and I wanted to start this year with a body which is confirming me. People see me as the first woman gondolier, and that means something for many people. It's not fair to them, so I needed to say something. On the Facebook side, I changed the name. Now, it's Alex Hai Gondolier Tools, and I did already a statement on my old website, there is a statement.

KRISTEN CLARK: It says, "Dear guests, colleagues, and friends, after holding myself back for three decades, it's time for me to depart from my wrong body. I am not changing who I am, I am becoming who I am."

JAD: Is he back in Venice now?

KRISTEN CLARK: Yes.

JAD: Do you have any sense of what that's going to mean for his job or his life?

ALEX HAI: I have no idea, I have no clue. I don't know how my voice is going to be in a month. It should drop. I have no idea how my face is going to look and my body's going to look in two years, three years from now. I'll leave it as a surprise. [sings] No idea, that's scary. [sings]

[rowing sounds]

ROBERT: Thanks to reporters Kristen Clark and David Conrad. Also, thanks to Alexis Ungerer and Summer, and of course, a huge thanks to Alex.

JAD: For sharing a very difficult story with us.

DAVID CONRAD: Are you worried about what the responses might be to it?

ALEX HAI: Oh my God, David, I'm a warrior. You think this is worrying me? I've been through worse, I guess.

KRISTEN CLARK: I remember when we were sitting out on the balcony, you had said something like, "I don't want to do another battle."

ALEX HAI: Exactly. I don't want to do another battle, but if I have to, I will. Because I hope that I can at least help one person out there.

[music]

JAD: This story was produced by Annie McEwen and Molly Webster with help from Kristin Clark, and we got reporting and translation help from Valentina Powers, Florence Ursino, and Ann Marie Somma.

[music]

JAD: We had original music from Jeremy Bloom and Alex Overington.

[music]

JAD: Okay, and on a very different note, a very belated note, we would like to take this moment to say goodbye to our long-time reporter and producer, Brenna Farrell.

ROBERT: Not only goodbye, but like thank you times 50. Like, thank you to the 50th power.

JAD: Yes, Brenna has been with us for many years, and I think with the station for over a decade, I believe, and done every single job that you can imagine. Brenna, we here at Radiolab and the whole station are going to miss you very, very much.

ROBERT: We already do, and still do, and do even more. Like right now.

[music]

JAD: All right, I'm Jad Abumrad.

ROBERT: I'm Robert Krulwich.

JAD: Thanks for listening.

Kathleen Herring: This is Kathleen Herring calling from Funny River, Alaska. Radiolab is produced by Jad Abumrad. Dylan Keefe is our director of sound design, Soren Wheeler is senior editor, Jamie York is our senior producer. Our staff includes Simon Adler, David Gebel, Tracie Hunte, Matt Kielty, Robert Krulwich, Annie McEwen, Latif Nasser, Melissa O'Donnell, Arianne Wack, and Molly Webster. With help from Valentina Bojanini, Sohum Pawar, Nigar Fatali, Phoebe Wang, and Katie Ferguson. Our fact-checker is Michelle Harris.

                                                  -30-

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