The second year of grammar school is a tough one, as my discomfort and confusion with myself continues to grow. Surgery did not work but has left me with a heightened sense of ‘difference’ – because my body is not like other boys’ bodies. Combined with my social awkwardness and the difference of my educational experience I probably choose to set myself apart, rather than fit in. Or actually, more accurately, there is a part of me that desperately wants to fit in, but a part of me which keeps a distance because of the fear of discovery/hurt. That pattern will remain long into my adult life.
I cultivate a snobbish and superior attitude to most of my classmates, rather than see them as people and try to get to know them better. My attitude is probably reinforced by the behaviour of our parents – Cuffley parents have little to do with Cheshunt parents. It’s probably too late to apologize for that now, but I am sorry that I wasn’t nicer.
Academically I am at sea – deposited in the bottom sets because of my hospital absence I face another year of being taught things I have been taught already. And when it comes to girls – I simply have no idea how to talk to them, particularly as I both like them and want to be like them.
On the positive side new drugs become available which greatly improve the way my asthma is controlled, so I don’t have to miss as much school. But my puberty is late, and strange. Body hair starts to appear, but it’s quite fine and light. At the same time my breasts start to bud. The development is never huge, but it’s there. And down below, things are not as you would expect. So when I change for sport or P.E. I am incredibly furtive, trying not to let anyone see my body, hoping the other boys will see this as no more than shyness.
As if to torture me, the pop music of the day is full of androgyny. Glam rock is in full swing – at the cool end (Bowie, Bolan), the rubbish end (Mud, Gary Glitter) and all points in between (Sweet). I never identify with androgyny – at least not during my teens – but the huge number of male pop stars who at least appear comfortable with sexual ambiguity disturbs and unnerves me. Particular songs also lie in wait to taunt me with visions of a very different life – Rebel, Rebel is still a couple of years ahead but Walk on the Wild Side is released around this time. When I figure out at least some of the lyrics (it’s many years before I understand the whole song) I am amazed that the record isn’t banned by the BBC. They probably didn’t understand it! One Sunday it is playing on the Radio 1 chart show in earshot of my father and myself, and in a rare moment of rebellion (perhaps also cautiously testing the waters) I tell him what the first verse is about. Predictably, he fizzes with outrage and indignation at this appalling moral outrage.
By this time I have acquired one “school friend” although it is more of a master/slave relationship (I will refrain from naming the individual). From my perspective, anyone who will talk to me at all is good news. From his perspective I am someone he can boss about and belittle, which he seems to find very satisfying. For a while we rattle along in this kind of Bill Sykes/Bullseye relationship (without the extreme violence). Then in early 1972 I finally make a real friend. Nigel is another boy in my class – originally from Yorkshire, his family moved down to Cuffley because of his father’s job. In the first year Nigel is particular friends with another boy whose family has also moved south (in his case from Scotland) and over time I become friendly with both of them. But in the second year the Scottish lad leaves the school and my relationship with Nigel becomes a closer one.
Like me, Nigel feels a degree of awkwardness and angst in his teenage years, although in his case not reinforced by concerns about gender. We find we share a lot of common interests, have similar perspectives on the scary teenage world and differing, but complimentary senses of humour. He is a little more confident than me (although it may not feel like that to him at the time) but we both value the chance to talk about our shared fears and angst.
I don’t dare tell him about my gender discomfort. That conversation has to wait many years, but finally in 2008 it happens. And at the moment I confide in him he is brilliant, and I am proud that he is still my very good friend.
Back in 1972 my more other, more exploitative “friend” comes up with an interesting idea. The school has a “youth club” on Friday nights for students to socialize – I have never attended thus far. Each year there is a Miss Youth Club beauty contest, and each year a few boys enter the competition mostly, I assume, for amusement. My friend suggests I enter – by dressing in his older sister’s clothes. From this distant perspective I don’t know why he suggests it – whether he has detected something about me, or whether this is simply another opportunity to boss me around. I, of course, am both excited and terrified by the opportunity, by the possibility that I might be able to offer the world a tiny glimpse of who I really am. In the end, the idea comes to nothing as his sister proves unwilling to loan elements of her wardrobe, but the emotions this suggestion has stirred in me are huge. My sense of difference grows stronger, but there seems no way of finding out more, or finding anyone who might be able to help me. I begin to wish that something might happen which will help, that somehow my parents will realize I need to be a girl and start to help me. But what?