Some time after serializing Jan Morris’ Conundrum, The Sunday Times offers some further clues as to where I might seek help. My memory of this is fuzzy, but we are probably talking about two stories, possibly in the same edition of the paper.
The first is a brief and sympathetic piece on trans women and their medical treatment, asserting something like “male-to-female transsexuals admire women and want to be like them”. There is a whiff of pity and/or tragedy in the piece, but that’s often the case even today. The second piece mentions an organisation called Parents Enquiry. As I recall it is described as a place for parents to seek information and support if they suspect their child is gay. Offshoots of this original organisation, now supporting parents of LGBT children, still exist, such as this one in Scotland.
To the extent that I have been able to figure out my sexuality at all during my teens, I do not feel I am gay. What adolescent interest I have is only in girls, although as I have mentioned my pubertal development is late and not quite as expected.
Like most teenagers at that time, I have had very little knowing contact with gay people. Gay sex had only been decriminalised in the UK in 1967, following recommendations of the Wolfenden Report. I know that – I have read about it my Pears Cyclopedia. Which also mentions a play about two gay men called Staircase, which, the Cyclopedia suggests finds at least one of them facing arrest for “masquerading in female attire”. Funny the kind of books your parents give you for having a good school report … So the gay liberation movement is only just starting to gather pace. The London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard is established in 1974, but based on my knowledge of what gay people are like – which at the time is based entirely on the largely appalling depictions of them in film and television programmes at the time – I find the idea of phoning a number which might be answered by a real live gay person much too worrying. Parents Enquiry sounds like a sensible organisation run by sympathetic grown-ups.
You will have detected the two potential problems with this approach. There is no mention of gender identity issues in the article I read in the paper – the organisation is for parents who have children they think may be gay. And of course, it is Parents Enquiry. But unfortunately, there is no sign of a Childrens Enquiry, so I decide to pluck up my courage and write to the address in the paper. I write along similar lines as to Anna Raeburn, but this time giving my real name so they can write back to me. A sensible organisation run by sympathetic grown-ups will protect my anonymity, surely?
I send off the letter. I wait a few days, but don’t hear back. Then, probably two weeks after writing, I am sitting in our front room at home and my mum comes in with my letter! I am terrified, but try and think quickly. I can see that the letter has been slit open. As I stand there panicking, my mum starts to say that the letter is marked “return to sender”. There is no such organisation at that address – the newspaper must have got it wrong. So the Royal Mail opened the letter and read it to get the return address. That’s unpleasant enough but I can’t let my mum read it, so I quickly snatch it away from her, mumbling some half-considered explanation. She doesn’t say anything, although the panic with which I snatch the letter must be obvious.
Later, as I destroy the letter, I wonder whether my mother has read it before returning it to me. I have no way of knowing. She would have seen the organisation it was addressed to, and that would have puzzled her. Has she, like me, read the article in the Sunday Times? Of course, she might have done. We never discuss it again, and my father never brings it up.
This simple, terrifying incident proves a defining moment for me. Looking back from this distance, there is more than one explanation for my parents not discussing the letter. They may not have read it – or they may have read it, but been too frightened to ask me about the contents. Or they may have sought “expert advice” from our dim-witted GP and been told that “it’s probably just a phase”. But back then as a teenager, my conception of reality is that bad news has consequences. My dad was quick enough to tear into me about the prospect of expulsion from school, so if he discovers his son is like Jan Morris, my assumption is that he will take action immediately to make sure I am “cured” of these terrible “tendencies”. What action that might be, I have no idea. Because of my persective at the time, the fact that neither parent talks to me further about the lettter I find, in the end reassuring. But it also pushes me down the path of denial.
Changing gender, I reason, would be to risk everything. It would explode every atom of my normal suburban life. Nothing would ever be the same – that’s clear enough to me. So I decide I am too scared to explore transition. But the logical consequence of that, I now know as an adult, is that I am too scared to be truly myself – and the thought of living like that is is probably, at a subconscious level too awful for my teenage self. So gradually, over time, I form a different kind of mental picture of who I am. A safer picture. I decide that I am, as it was always put in those days, a transvestite and not a transsexual. That’s safer isn’t it – it’s just about clothes after all, it just means I’m a bit odd. That’s my teenage self talking by the way, in case anyone is offended – I don’t think crossdressers are odd now. At about the same time a display ad starts appearing regularly in the Sunday Times for a shop called Cover Girl in Islington, North London. Although the language is coded, it is clear that this shop supplies clothing, and merchandise, for crossdressers. The ad appears every week but it is years before I have the courage to go in through Cover Girl’s door.
In order to function at all I have to go into a permanent state of denial, and construct this fiction. Not a fiction for anyone else – just a fiction for me to live in, on my own. So for the following decades, all that I explore seriously is crossdressing, not transition. The energy required to deny your true self is a huge burden – as I no longer have that burden, I can see just how much it takes out of you. But maintaining that fiction, which at the time seems like the only possible choice for me, also distorts you as a person – distorts your life choices, affects your confidence, makes you more risk-averse, leads you to make choices you wouldn’t otherwise make. Some of my choices were good ones, and in due course I managed to have some successes, and some happiness – quite a bit in fact, even though I was always devoting energy to keeping this great truth at bay.
Although I “decide” I am a crossdresser, my interest in those who transition doesn’t diminish, and each time there is a story in the press or on television, I pay attention. I listen to their story, I understand something of what they have gone through. Given my determination to be “only” a cross-dresser, I have, at the time, no explanation for my continuing interest in the process of what used to be called a “sex change”. But even this simple resolve, to limit things to a matter of clothes and how they make me feel, is not the whole story. As I move towards, and into adulthood, life becomes slowly more and more complicated.