When L– moves out, I finally (although as it turns out, briefly) have the freedom to dress as I like at home, for the first time in my life, a situation I quickly take advantage of. Encouraged by Wendy’s support (and make-up lesson) I start acquiring some more clothes of my own, for the first time since college days in Manchester. I briefly find a rush of confidence, poised at the start of a period of self-exploration.
I remember two shopping expeditions in particular – one to a shop on Walthamstow High Street, where the assistant asks whether I am buying these clothes for my girlfriend. Yes, I answer nervously and she replies (somewhat knowingly I think) that she hopes my “girlfriend” likes them. Some more relaxed purchasing takes place in Miss Selfridge on Oxford Street, where I feel more anonymous and less likely to bump into anyone I know. As is often the case with those who crossdress, I have a tendency to buy highly feminine clothes, and mostly evening or partywear. I make some dreadful mistakes but in Miss Selfridge I actually make some tasteful purchases. Wendy helps me buy some shoes by proxy – I am never brave enough to try anything on and draw the line at marching up to the checkout with a pari of high heeled shoes.
Shortly after these various purchases comes the weekend when I have the run of Wendy’s south London flat. Ironically my own flat is much closer to the TV/TS group in French Place, but at least for the moment I am too nervous to risk travelling there from, or returning to, Walthamstow. I am also too nervous to walk out of Wendy’s door dressed as a woman, but French Place has changing facilities, so the plan is to go early and get changed there.
I can’t remember exactly how I get there – the location is not particularly near any tube or rail stations, and I am not an expert on the bus routes – but get there I do. I ring the doorbell, perhaps slightly less nervously than on my visit to Upper Street, and I am ushered by one of the helpers. She shows me to the changing area, which is communal. I hitch myself into complicated underwear, and then outerwear, in the company of one other person, and then put on my make-up as best I can in the relatively poor light. Finally, and nervously, I wander into the (non-alcoholic) bar.
There are a few people there, and even though we are all there for the same reason, I am scared as hell. This is the first time anyone, apart from L–, has seen me crossdressed. Despite the fact that I have finally found my community I still don’t feel like I belong. As far as I’m concerned, everyone is either better looking, or more experienced, or more confident than me, or some combination of all three. There is a tall, striking girl in borderline fetishwear and with long blonde hair who, to me, looks absolutely stunning – I am amazed at how feminine she appears. How can I aspire to be like that?
At least I am here, and dressed how I want to be dressed. I sit shyly at a table where two other people are sitting. Yvonne Sinclair, organizer and prime mover, wanders around dispensing her unique mixture of boisterousness and empathy. One of the other girls – WHOA. Stop. I just want to explain why I am calling them girls. Firstly, at this distance, I cannot be sure how the people I spoke to during my visits to the group identfied. However, most clearly identified as crossdressers at the time (as did I). |But I don’t want to endlessly use the term crossdresser. However I dislike the terms transvestite or tranny. And I can’t call them women, because they are primarily men dressing as women – and “ladies” sounds too Little Britain. So as shorthand for this era of my life, I will refer to them as girls.
So … one of the other girls at the table starts talking to me. I can’t remember exactly what we discuss that night, more than twenty years ago. But I distinctly remember my reaction when, after a few minutes, she says to me “So, are you living full-time?”. Astonished, I stutter that no, I’m not, why do you ask? She replies “Well, looking at you, I thought you were.”
Let us pause, dear reader, and analyze this compliment, particularly with regard to the stage I have reached in my own transgender development by that point in 1986. This night is the first time I have been out dressed in public as a woman – well as “public” as French Place is. It is only about the fourth time I have done my own make-up – and before you assume I have a natural gift for applying cosmetics let me assure you that I am pretty sure my make-up must have looked fairly awful. I am as nervous as hell. And yet despite all that, the first person who talks to me has taken one look and assumes that I am living full-time as a woman. What they see to make them think that, I don’t know. Maybe they glimpse the true person that now, here in 2010, I am finally in the process of becoming. Maybe, despite my nerves, at a deeper level I am more relaxed because of the opportunity to “be myself”, and perhaps that shows. Who knows.
You might think I would be delighted at such a compliment. In fact, my feelings are incredibly mixed. I cannot ignore the power of such a question, but I also find myself unable to accept the implications. Although I think, in some way, it gives me a confidence boost, I remain unable at this stage to respond to the conclusion this other girl has drawn. In some ways, it confuses me because I have such a low opinion personally of how I look – I can’t believe I could look like a woman, or be attractive. These feelings run incredibly deep.
I spend the rest of the evening quietly sipping my Coke. I strike up a conversation with someone else living in South London, and she offers to give me a lift back to Wendy’s flat. This means, if I am brave enough, that I don’t need to get changed back into male clothes. I discover I am brave enough, at least to be driven back to Denmark Hill and then to walk the few lengths of corridor to Wendy’s front door. Closing the front door behind me, I briefly stand in front or her mirror and I do allow myself, a moment of exultation at the fact that I have walked at least a tiny distance in the world dressed as a woman.
In the following months, despite myself, I grow a little in confidence. I return to French Place, changing there, and changing back. I decide I want to go to a drag ball. The ones in Porchester Hall, West London, have by now folded, but there are regular balls at Tutor Lodge in Bromley-by-Bow, perilously close to Titan in fact. I decide to change at home and get a taxi there. I phone a local firm and explain that I am dressed as a woman “for a fancy dress party”. But in due course I am a regular client and don’t need to offer that explanation. Ron Storme, formerly of the Porchester balls, now runs the Tudor Lodge event, and greets me warmly. But despite attending such events, I remain somehow, apart. I don’t make friends – partly my shyness, and partly never understanding where I fit on the trans spectrum.
I occasionally walk around my neighbourhood late at night crossdressed. Risky though it is, that bit of visibility makes me feel better somehow and it is another step out into the world. When our friend Caroline has a fancy dress party at her house in Palmers Green, I go in my favourite little black dress, and am warmly received by my friends – although none of them, apparently, suspect anything.
No longer in a relationship, I begin to wonder how my sexuality relates to my gender identity, and tentatively experiment to try and find out. The most significant experiment is with another crossdresser. She is younger and much taller, but I think she looks quite good, and she thinks I look good as well. She visits me at the flat. We talk, and then march off to separate rooms to put our clothes and make-up on. When we re-emerge crossdressed she takes the initiative, at least to begin with. What ensues is perfectly pleasant, but doesn’t lead me to any particular conclusions about myself.
I become a bit uncomfortable about continuing to draw on Wendy’s support. By this time she has left Titan and is starting a new life – in due course she and Anthony will move up to Barnsley (where she came from) to start up their own business. It’s a shame that I dont talk to her more at this stage, because I think it would have helped me deal with/understand my feelings a bit more. But, perhaps needlessly, I feel a bit intrusive.
Although my first steps into a crossdressing world have been a bit hesitant and clunky, perhaps with time I would have grown more confident about exploring my gender identity. But problems are around the corner which will derail this early progress.
By the autumn of 1986 life seems to be offering an increasing range of opportunities. After all these years there seems to be the prospect of feeling more confident about myself and exploring my identity. The ending of my relationship with L– leaves me free to explore new possibilities. It seems like a very exciting time is in prospect, but in fact a whole range of factors are about to combine so that, within 18 months, almost all my hopes will come crashing down around me. In order to explain why, you will need to travel with me on a few parallel tracks, so that you can see how, in due course, they come together.