While I flirt with expulsion boys and girls at Goffs are noticing each other rather more frequently, and significantly, than in earlier years. This may seem like late development to those living in this modern era of early-onset puberty and white limos for middle school proms but baby, this is the 1970s, and quite possibly the heyday of the school disco to boot! Of course some boys are noticing boys, and some girls are noticing girls, but only one boy to my memory is ever brave enough to be public about his gayness, which is revealed as a consequence of his attempting to run away from home and seek help. His bravery – and his ability to figure out where to run to, is not lost on me.
I think I only go to two discos as a paying customer in all my years at the school (although very late in my time there, and in a weird and brief oasis of self-confidence, I actually DJ at one!). The idea of it seems terrifying to me, and so it proves. But first, a little background. Even if I were not transgender, I think it unlikely that I would have been seen by my fellow students as being at the cool end of the spectrum. I arrived with a full set of private school mannerisms which it took me most of the first year to live down; I am one of the shortest boys in my year; I am also one of the nerdiest. Which is OK, you know? I’ll hang on to my nerdiness – it’s fairly wide-ranging and not too obsessive, not these days at any rate.
Even when my asthma recedes I am not physically confident or sporty and in addition, I am very careful about letting my body be seen while changing, so I kind of hide away from the other boys, shower with my back to them and so on. I get pretty good at concealing things – only once does a boy named Howard (fellow Goffs pupils of the era will know who I mean) spot something wrong clearly enough to shout out about it to the other boys in the changing room. Luckily for me he is well known for talking endless streams of nonsense, so his comments are ignored. In fact in retrospect, I can’t believe I got through all those years of school changing rooms relatively unscathed. If you ever watch the (rather good but not unproblematic) movie Different for Girls, which is about a trans woman, there is a shower scene early on which holds a lot of resonance for me.
Nonetheless I have a low opinion of myself in terms of someone that girls might be remotely interested in. From my own perspective, my emerging interest in girls tends to be primarily romantic in nature and of course, in retrospect, hopelessly tangled up with my interest in maybe becoming a girl, or at least more like a girl. Some trans people manage to negotiate these difficulties somehow and have a successful adolescence but I am not one of them. I have no confidence, and I have no confidants. Years later I will discover that my testosterone levels in my teens and early adulthood were always abnormally low, and this no doubt affected how I developed in all sorts of ways. As I have already written I kept my physical and psychological development apart from each other in my mind, perhaps because not doing so would have made the need to seek help harder for me to resist. In recent years, when I have exchanged information about medical history with other trans women I have been surprised how many others have had anomalous physical development. As I wrote in my introduction to the film XXY, the medical establishment tend to treat physical and psychological sex and gender variation as separate phenomena, which has the effect of keeping us all more underground and meaning that we receive worse healthcare than we should. It’s a complicated business and I don’t think I’ll ever understand my full medical history – the medical evidence, such as there may be, is apparently lost. Particularly the evidence relating to my first, botched operation.
Regardless of all that, I am interested in girls – romantically, and because it’s the “normal” thing to do, and because perhaps if a girl became interested in me that would be evidence that I’m in some way “OK”. It doesn’t happen. As we head towards our O-levels I make friends who are girls but I am between 19 and 20 before I have a girlfriend.
Back in the fourth year my friend Nigel is, comfortingly, as baffled by the opposite gender as I am. You will recall that earlier we both fell for, and were rebuffed, by the same girl. Around this time we manage to do this again and both become interested in another girl, but this time she is spoken for, at least for the time being. We compare notes frequently on our jointly hopeless situation re this girl and any others. In due course this will lead to what Mrs Harrison, our English teacher, used to call when referring to any novel or play we were studying, “an I-RON-IC situation”, always emphasising them three syllables to make sure us hicks didn’t miss nuthin’. I will write about that situation, which ultimately becomes genuinely Hardyesque, without naming names. Other than names I have already named, you understand. That particular incident all gets a bit personal and I am not in touch with the other players so I cannot seek their permission to name us all. Perhaps for major players who I am not in contact with I will stick to using initials, Victorian novel-style. Although it is probably too late to try and pretend I went to Overcombe School, near the town of Casterbridge, and aspired to study Classics at Christminster. Ah well, there we are.
By the time of my first school disco one of our close little clan (not to be named) has a girlfriend and through him we get to know her friends. So at least we now have friends who are girls. There are four of them who always go around together and share, I recall, an excessive devotion to the music of the Carpenters. Unhelpfully in terms of romantic ambition, they are mostly taller than me, and as we all know the rule that boyfriends must be the same height or taller than girlfriends is almost universally adhered to, even today. So in addition to all the other problems, that probably rules out 90% of the school female population.
Of the disco itself I have only two memories. One relates to my brief, disastrous flirtation with that icon of seventies style, the platform shoe. At the time I am so self-conscious about my lack of height, that in a doomed attempt to impress I buy a pair of (I think) brown, three-inch heeled laceless platform shoes.
Discos are held in the Goffs School hall, where we also have assembly and school dinners. The hall has three components – the main area, where everyone eats except the small minority who bring packed lunches; the stage, way across on the other side, where Dr Hadley tells us in assembly about faith, hope and charity, and the occasional trendy teacher plays us a bit of Cat Stevens; and in between the two, a sunken area called The Well. At assembly pupils from the lower years sit in the Well, but at school discos it is where the discoing happens. The various modes of dancing and attempts at romancing which take place are greatly enhanced by dedicated attention of the school cleaning staff who take pleasure in buffing the floor of the Well to a glassy, rink-like finish, or so it seems to me that night.
So my first memory of the disco is attempting to cross that slippery surface in three-inch platform heels. No doubt I also looked terrible. I had no idea which boys clothes might look good on me – and admittedly it was a rather terrible era for fashion in any case. My other memory of that evening is meeting at least two of the girls who are now my friends but not girlfriends there and that I see them and slither across to them. Not in a Leslie Phillips way, more in an “I’m out of control and may fall over so need to grip the table next to you as soon as possible!” kind of way. The main reason I mention this is I do remember what they were wearing, funnily enough. Well brought-up girls used to go to discos wearing maxi dresses or a blouse and long skirt. Maxi dresses were about to be retired, before their recent revival, but it hadn’t quite happened yet. And I remember thinking that they were both pretty girls but not liking what they were wearing at all. The maxi-length clothes they wore that night were very floral – the sort of thing you would see in the TV version of Little House on the Prairie, which was just getting going at the time. I mention it because of the complexity of the thoughts that would go through my head when I looked at a girl – in this case both “that doesn’t suit them” and also “I wouldn’t want to wear that”. It’s funny to think that even at this early stage, I have no real interest in men’s fashion but some (not very expert) interest in women’s fashion.
Of the rest of the disco I have no memory – it must have been that bad. I remember the second one, a little better. That one was bad too, but it’s probably a sign of how bad the first one is that I don’t go to another one for four years!
After my reluctance to take up Anna Raeburn’s offer of assistance (see my earlier post) I have a second attempt at seeing whether anyone may be able to help me with my cross-gender feelings. This goes so scarily wrong that it has the effect of slamming the closet door firmly, and painfully in my face for years to come.