… sounds like the title of some seventies exploitation movie. Which is, perhaps, appropriate. The pop culture of the early seventies experiments with notions of gayness, camp and transness, sometimes together and sometimes separately. Crossdressing has a long tradition within UK culture, but the tendency is to assert how ridiculous a man looks dressed as a woman. Even most famous female impersonator in the UK, Danny LaRue, looks glamorous but undercuts it by switching to a blokey, low voice to reassure his audience that no real transgression is taking place. Away from the mainstream there is a more serious drag scene – in pubs, and at drag balls – but I have no way of accessing it, apart from a brief glimpse of a documentary on television at around that time. I catch the first five minutes of this and then turn the TV off in panic as I hear my father approaching the room.
But 1972 seems to mark the start of great interest in trans themes in mainstream media, and these images both transfix and torture me. Each weekday my Dad buys the London Evening Standard newspaper on his way home from work. The entertainment listings always include display ads for movies showing in the city. One evening I am stunned to see the poster for I Want What I Want, featuring a man staring at himself in the mirror apparently magically transformed into a woman. The ad is repeated day after day and each evening I furtively turn to it and am transfixed by the power that imagery holds for me.
That same year sees the release of a film adapting H.E.Bates’ The Triple Echo, the tale of a deserting soldier in World War II whose lover disguises him as her sister in order to prevent the army from finding him. At the time of release the film is extensively advertised on television, with imagery of the actor Brian Deacon crossdressed. My mum is an admirer of Bates’ fiction and buys the film tie-in edition of the novel as a Penguin paperback. Towards the end of the story, the disguised soldier agrees to attend a party with a local army sergeant who has fallen for him, unaware that he is a man. The tale ends in predictable tragedy but the description in the book of the soldier in his party dress appearing “so completely a woman” comes to haunt me as I struggle through a burdensome puberty.
As far as I can remember both these films are rated X in the UK at the time of release – so even if I could be brave enough to try to see them I am too young to be admitted to the cinema. Years later I catch them both on late night television and find them, as with many mainstream depictions of trans from that period, exciting but flawed. The trans character in I Want What I Want, as is almost always the case, is played by a woman, but as far as I can recall (the film is not available on DVD) Anne Heywood takes her role seriously and brings an interesting flavour of ambiguity to her performance. In the end I believe her character Roy/Wendy is granted surgery amazingly easily. Although the film’s heart is in the right place, it remains relatively unrealistic and exploitative. The Triple Echo, on the other hand, with scenes of Brian Deacon’s character being ‘courted’ by Oliver Reed’s gruff and aggressively masculine sergeant, is disturbing in a different way. It sends a strong message about how vulnerable asserting my identity might make me, and a more confusing message about what my place in society might possibly be. As the cross-dressed soldier’s deception is discovered he is forced to run for his life – I remember the imagery of him staggering through the woods as his female clothes are torn to shreds. When the authorities finally catch up with him he is dealt with summarily and brutally.
Back in 1972, knowing that these films exist but that I can’t get to see them is torture. At the same time more conventional adolescent change is occurring all around me among my classmates, which increases my own sense of separateness. But at the same time I start to notice girls, and begin to wonder how and when a girl might ever consent to go out with me. The foundations for living two separate lives begin to be laid.