I understood who I was, and my need to transition, on May 3 2008. I transitioned socially on July 23 2009 – one year ago yesterday. In the run up to transition, and even more so in this past year, my perspectives on so many issues have changed tremendously, a consequence of trying to be honest with myself, and with others; of developing a greater understanding of myself, and of trans and intersex issues; of considering gender, and politics, and what it means to be a woman in our society; of becoming more politically aware, and angry about how badly trans and intersex people, myself included, have often been treated. There is never an excuse, but in my childhood and early adulthood there was more ignorance, which explains some things but which doesn’t excuse. There is no excuse for many of the things which still happen now, let alone then. But I digress …
That preamble is by way of saying that I find it hard to recognize the person taking those first faltering (and in the end failing) steps outside of the closet at the age of 21. Or, to put it another way, there’s a lot I recognize about him – his taste in books and music for example – but not a lot I recognize about her, the woman struggling to emerge, the state she was in at the time. Even a few months after transitioning things felt so different to me that it quite quickly became hard to imagine how I had managed to cope with carrying that burden. Now it has started to become difficult to remember – not what happened, but how it felt sometimes. It’s like trying to remember post-operative pain – you can remember you had it, but not what it was like mercifully. And then if you have another operation, you remember … oh yes, that’s what it felt like.
One incredible contrast is how much it was about clothes then, and isn’t about clothes now. Don’t get me wrong – I love clothes, I love the fact that I’m starting to explore different looks, find ways of expressing my personality through clothes. I love the fact I can do it seven days a week, rather than once in a blue moon, which was the situation for longer than I can bear to think … but back then, clothes were about disguising him and now they are about showing me to the world – scary, but more and more fun.
So this and many forthcoming posts will tell of (mostly unedifying) struggles with clothes and with a confused sense of self. So please excuse the degree of concentration on (often unwise and unflattering) garments. However painful and strange it seems to me looking back, I had to go through all of this to get here. And here is cool.
So, I am 21. My student room in Great Western Street, Manchester. L– is staying over as she often does. We are in my room, in bed, in our nightwear. L has a black, shiny, short nightdress with matching knickers. I don’t know why I said something that night – maybe it was just that her ensemble appealed. For whatever reason, I ask L– if I can try the knickers on. She says sure, slips them off and I slip them on. They are nice, as far as I can recall. I wear them for a bit and then take them off. We cuddle, and go to sleep.
In the morning I wake up thinking that I have made some huge, radical gesture and I am worried about what L– may think. As the day progresses it’s apparent that she thinks nothing of it at all – she probably just thought I was curious. For me though, everything feels different. We go to the shops that day with our friend S–, who is at college with L–. We are not in the city, somewhere else, maybe Stockport. I am suddenly hyper-aware: of women’s clothes in shops and shop windows, of what women are wearing as we pass them in the street. The presence of this clothing is suddenly overwhelming yet out of reach – I will feel that way many times in the following years. In one shop I see some clothes I like the look of, and for a moment toy with the idea of asking L– to buy some for me, but of course I don’t dare to do so, particularly with S– in tow.
That night, alone with L– in my room again, I pluck up the courage to raise the stakes. You know I was trying on your knickers last night, I cautiously say? Well, the reason is I actually like wearing girls’ clothes. I’m thinking of getting some of my own, maybe you could help me, would that be OK? I can’t remember what else I say – that was the key utterance at that stage, and L– seems OK, not that bothered. Later on it will prove more of an issue …
I can’t remember exactly when this takes place, except that it is in the second year of college, because we are in my room in the house. In the third year L– and myself will rent a flat and move in together. It was probably in the Spring Term – over the next couple of weeks we talk about my interest in crossdressing a little more and my hypersensitivity to the clothes around me grows. When we go into the city we quite often catch the bus back from Piccadilly Gardens. There is a department store there – Debenhams or something, and as the bus swings by the store I am always eager to see what clothes will be in the window. It being the late 70s and early 80s, the clothes are often quite glitzy. I remember there is a particular outfit in the window for some weeks – the dummy is dressed in a multi-coloured spangly boob tube, pencil skirt and beret. All of which I covet. Then, you understand. Not now. Although retro can be fun …
I am back home for the Easter break, and there are more developments. By this time I have found out about London Friend, a gay and lesbian support organisation. I have also found out (I can’t recall how, maybe from reading Time Out) that on Saturday nights a TV/TS support group meets there. At the time London Friend is on Upper Street in Islington. Further down, and across the road is Cover Girl, probably Britain’s first specialist shop for crossdressers. Islington begins to assume mythical potency for me as a result of these two locations.
At that time there are still regular drag balls at Porchester Hall, West London, organized by the late Ron Storme. These mostly cater for drag queens but crossdressers are, I gather, welcome. I would love to go a drag ball, so I think that maybe if I go to Friend that night, maybe someone will take me. OK so I’ll be dressed as a man, but at least I will get to see others crossdressing at close quarters, I theorize. I create some cover story for my mum and get the train into town. The Cuffley line stops at Highbury and Islington station, which is at the top of Upper Street – Friend is about a 15 minute walk down the road.
In fact, my master plan turns out to be a massive misjudgement. When I get to Friend there’s only about half a dozen people there. The usual attendees are going to the ball all right – but they are getting ready at home and going straight there.
It takes me about ten minutes of walking back and forth past the door before I pluck up the courage to ring the bell, trying to remain unobserved while I do so. I only remember two people vividly – a young skinny crossdresser who perches on the table for most of the evening, chatting in a low, Kenneth Williams-style moan, the first crossdressing person apart from myself I have ever talked to. And then in the corner, an oriental woman who has transitioned. She is very quiet, and I am both scared of her and fascinated by her. She has short dark hair, and is wearing jeans. I remember being disappointed by her wearing trousers, so potent is the mystique of clothes for me at that time. I am too nervous to talk to her, or to anyone much.
The other people there – I don’t remember. They are at Friend because they are not going to the ball. How disappointing. I don’t think Yvonne Sinclair, the organiser of the group, is there – I meet her on a later occasion.
So much for that – a let down. But further down the road is the tempting shop front of Cover Girl. Shortly after my visit to Friend, I nervously step across that threshold, and I am not alone – L– is with me.