It’s easier to remember the order of events at school because there are lots of landmarks. I am in year X, I have teacher Y, I am taking my O-levels etc. So for events outside the home I have a clear chronology. I’m less clear what happens when at home, but my teenage years do mark a period of significant change.
My mum’s relationship with my father worsens. There are endless rows – about serious stuff and about trivial stuff. It feels like my dad is always criticising my mum about something, and often her responses are equally fiery. He also shouts at me a lot – and the more independent I seem to him the angrier he gets. A lot of this is standard stuff for a parent of that era – like not understanding the music you like – but it’s the ferocity of the attack I find difficult. I start to dread the sound of him arriving back from work in the Jaguar, because we never know what kind of evening we’re in for. On a table in our lounge sit two decanters – one is full of whisky, the other sherry. Nestled next to them is the height of seventies sophistication – a gold stand in which to keep your box of After Eight Mints. Not real gold, you understand.
Once my dad has arrived home, he often has a drink. Sometimes whisky, sometimes sherry. If it’s sherry, we are likely to be in for a bad night – the chances are he will become belligerent and verbally aggressive. I learn to dread the chuckling sound of sherry decanted into cut glass – it’s many years before I can bear to touch the stuff. My dad never hits me you understand, but he does terrify me with the relentlessness of his verbal attacks, his pressing insistence on how worthless I am. Over time, like my mother, I start to fight back as I become more confident in my own opinions. I feel better in some ways but the result is to make things even worse between us – he’s happy if he thinks he’s got to you, but he hates it if you fight back.
There is no growing sense of confidence about my gender – just more confusion. As the seventies – and my teens – get going there are more times when I am at home on my own. Evenings to begin with, as I am no longer felt to be in need of a babysitter, but during school holidays I am sometimes alone in the day as well. So there are more and more times when I find myself alone with my thoughts – and alone with my mother’s wardrobe. I cannot change my body so the only effective means of exploring my gender is through clothing.
My parents are very socially active – dinners and dances where estate agents gather, membership of community organisations and the like. My mother is very fashion-conscious and is well supplied with evening wear. And of course it is the heightened feeling of wearing this type of clothing – the clothes that make me feel as little like a boy as possible – that is so entrancing. In a drawer I find what would now be described, I guess, as a nude body suit. It has two bra inserts which, when fitted, give me the appearance of having a bust. So I usually begin with this and then spent a happy hour or two trying on different dresses and looking at myself in the mirror. At this age everything is a good fit – I’m no judge of how I would have looked to someone else but I am thrilled by the apparent transformation, and the sensation of the clothing. At one point a long blue satin dress appears on the rack and I remember now the feeling of the lining, almost ice cold, as I slipped it on for the first time. I will share my thoughts about the relationship between clothes and identity another time, but one reason why I think many people who feel they are crossdressers later realize that they need to transition is that the crossdressing, while satisfying in one way, reinforces the gulf between the physical sex you are and the physical sex you would wish to be. It’s all about the ‘putting on’ of external appearance, and of course it’s all you can do – you can’t “put on” the body. And as your thinking develops and you gain a sense of how much would be involved in transition, and how impossible that seems, then the distinction between desire and possibility grows. You wish to change, but can’t. The wearing of a different type of clothing helps, but is ultimately unsatisfying, emphasizing the gulf between what you want and what seems possible.
There are occasions when I don’t hide my activities as well as I would like and questions are asked. One day I experiment with my mother’s make-up, and although I take care to remove it as best I can, there are traces of eye make-up that I fail to spot. My mother returns home and we are watching afternoon television – the moment is so vivid that I can remember we were watching Jokers Wild – when she asks pointedly if I have something stuck in my eye. No, I answer nervously.
On another occasion I play around with nail polish and splash remover on her dressing table while I’m taking it off – the remover dissolves some of the table’s varnish, leaving a large, visible stain. When questioned I make some limp excuse about “playing around” with the varnish – I try to make it about scientific curiosity, rather than curiosity of another kind.
These close calls make me avoid cosmetics and stick to trying on clothes instead. Whatever my parents suspect, the questions are never probing – maybe they don’t want to hear the answers. Desperate to try and understand myself, I start looking for information about crossdressing and changing gender. I discover that unknown to them, my parents have provided me with information (and mis-information), scattered around the house.