I’m often asked at what stage in my life I knew I was transgender. Childhood memories are inevitably fuzzy, particularly at this distance, so I can’t be sure whether I had any inklings before one crucial day, although I think I did. But that particular day remains very clear to me – it’s casting day for Hiawatha and I am nine-and-a-half years old. There is one major female part – Minnie Ha-Ha, who becomes Hiawatha’s wife – but the teacher directing the show has decided that one or two of the small parts should be cast as female as well. I am to play what in those less enlightened days we describe as a Red Indian squaw.
As the teacher addresses me, my response is not about the play, or about the costume, or about the lines (which I will panic about in due course). Instantly, and involuntary, the words “You will be a girl, Curson” shift and release something in my mind that is clearly waiting to be shifted and released. The play, and the teacher’s continuing allocation of parts, fades away as I think about the possibility – what would it be like to be a girl? At that moment, the idea appears clearly impossible but at the same time, utterly delicious and wonderful. Even though, apart from anything else, I don’t know what it means. As an only child I only have the dimmest notion what a girl’s body is like and no suspicion that a penis can be used for anything other than peeing. And even though I am not athletic, I otherwise like what I feel at the time are ‘boy’ things. Boys toys, books, comics .. But despite all that I am entranced. I am always studious and attentive in class, but not that morning. I drift into a dreamy state where I contemplate what it would be like to be magically transformed into a girl, whatever the strange and mysterious differences between boys and girls are. I think about that magical possibility for the rest of the day. The apparent conflict – between liking ‘boy’ things and feeling I am not a boy – will define my life, and life choices for decades to come.
After the intensity of that day, memories of how I adjust to the knowledge that being a girl is something I might like are vague. Apart from anything else, as far as I know at that stage I am the only person ever to have these strange thoughts. I have yet to hear the words transvestite or transsexual, so perhaps I have landed on these odd little thoughts all by myself. Nonetheless I quickly become very aware that I should keep the knowledge private. Danny La Rue, then the most famous female impersonator in Britain, is regularly on the television, and when we see him, or someone like him, my Dad turns to me in our front room and says “that’s disgusting, isn’t it?”. Whether he has noticed something about me, or knows something about my medical history, is something I only speculate about much later, and have no way of knowing. Regardless I very rapidly make a private note that I too am disgusting, and my father, who seems angrier by the day and whose general intolerance will become clearer to me, must never know. So of course, my mother must never know either. My schoolmates find it easy enough to tease me anyway – asthmatic, unathletic, “different”, so I definitely won’t give them another reason – they would be merciless, or at least I think they would. Hiding my true self from others begins here, and by the end of my confused teenage years I will have begun to hide from myself as well, a self-denial to be sustained for decades.
A little later I do hear about one person who has, in the lingo of the day, changed sex (a horrible, limiting, defining phrase by the way – never use it). My mother mentions April Ashley – I can’t remember why. Her story became notorious in 1961, when I was just three, and when my mum delivers this tidbit of information I seize on the idea that someone has crossed this apparently uncrossable line, even though I don’t know how, or how such knowledge could relate to me, a weedy Home Counties schoolboy. I see her on the television years later during my confused teens – so beautiful and bewitching and wholly herself that I am mesmerised.
So – I figure out I must keep quiet. I worry that if anyone knows, they will hate me and consider me a freak. I worry that if my father knows, he will want to throw me out of the house. I worry, at the deepest level, that if anyone knows it will be the end of everything that is good in my life. It never feels like it can belong. But apart from this strange understanding that seems at odds with everything else, I am enjoying life, in an odd, solitary way. I cannot reconcile these feelings I have with my conventional, middle class suburban life, so I try and press on with that life, only occasionally paying attention to this part of my nature. It will take forty years for me to understand that the two things cannot be reconciled but instead, need to be integrated somehow, and also to know which of these two worlds is the real, important one.
I am excited about my squaw costume for weeks, but when it arrives it is a bitter disappointment. The dress is a short, drab affair or rough orange hessian. The “wig”, I recall, is basically a piece of knitted wool with pigtails. I sit cross-legged and deflated in the gym waiting to go on stage and say my one line, reading a strange little detective novel my Mum found in a nearby shop. Published in the war and unearthed by the shopkeeper, it is printed on paper made from corn, odd blotchy stuff. Such a vivid time that odd, irrelevant details remain glued to it.
At this distance I speculate about why I would have been cast as a girl, why my father made a point of saying how disgusting Danny La Rue was. Did they respond to my femininity? I will never know – the answer is in the past, as by my teens I had learned to hide any obvious clues. It could, of course, mean nothing. The school has to find their girls somewhere. And yet, two years later I am cast as a girl again, an even more exciting opportunity that will end in worse disappointment.