Prompted by a comment from Ruth on my last post, and by a conversation with Mrs K last night, I’m going to regress to my childhood this time round. Way back when I started this blog nearly two years ago, my very first post was a short one about my history, where this all began. But as I hadn’t yet found my blogging mojo, it was rather short and lacking in detail. Plus, as time has gone by other things have come back to me, or taken on other significance, so I think it’s time to revisit that and look at my memories of how I felt as a child in a little more depth.Back in that first post, my very first sentence was to the effect that I had always had an urge to wear women’s clothing. That was certainly true, but I think at the time (both as a child and when I originally wrote that sentence) I didn’t really give any consideration as to why I felt that way. What was it about me that made me want to dress in that way. But I did have that urge.
I think the earliest time I can conclusively put a date on this feeling was at the age of seven. My sister was getting married, and I was to be a page boy. But in the run-up to the wedding, my brother kept saying that I was going to have to wear a kilt, really just so he could wind me up – he’s my older brother, it’s in the job description! Externally, I played along, feigning horror and annoyance at this, in the knowledge that I couldn’t possibly show any actual enthusiasm for the idea lest anyone discover that I really wanted to dress like a girl, to be a girl. But inside, I had daydream after daydream about this idea, which seemed to me as close as I was ever likely to come to actually be able to wear a skirt in my “normal” existence. My sister actually got married two days after my eighth birthday, and I wore a white shirt, velvet bow tie and charcoal grey shorts. I was a mixture of disappointed that I didn’t get my kilt, and relieved that I wasn’t going to end up giving myself away with a joyous reaction to it. Strangely enough, the thought of a man’s kilt has no appeal now, and if anything it carries more overtly “manly” connotation than everyday men’s clothing. But I wasn’t aware of those overtones in 1978. Anyway, the fact that I know when my sister married means that I can conclusively know that I had some inclination towards at least cross-dressing from the age of seven.
Other memories are more vague. I can very clearly remember seeing one of my mum’s skirts laid out on her bed as I was going to bed one night. As I lay down in my own bed in my own room, I could feel it calling to me. I had never worn any items of clothing that weren’t either definitively male or unisex, and I desparately wanted to feel what it would be like to put this on. So knowing that everyone else in the house was still downstairs (I’m the youngest child) I crept out of my bedroom and into my parents’ room, where the skirt was lying waiting on the bed. I had just lifted it up and held it in front of me, ready for me to step into, when I heard footsteps coming up the stairs. I quickly put the skirt back where it had been and ran out just in time for my mum to see me emerging from her room. “Caught me!” I exclaimed, but offered no explanation as to what I had been doing. I just went back to bed, still never having experienced wearing a skirt. I’m not sure exactly when this happened, but if I had to put a date on it, it would have been before that sister’s wedding, but definitely after we moved into the house where I spent most of my childhood, meaning I was between the ages of four and seven.
I can recall seeing what were termed “female impersonators” on the television, what we would now call drag queens, most famously Danny La Rue. I knew that he was a man, and that he was only dressing up to put on a show, to entertain the audience, but at the same time I was fascinated that “he” could do this. But I knew that it wasn’t really what I wanted. I wasn’t about putting on a show, pretending to be something I wasn’t. I just wanted, deeply, fiercely, to be able to look like a pretty girl, to be, even if temporarily, a pretty girl.
Now based upon what I have written so far, you might be forgiven for thinking I was a nascent TV. In fact, for many years, I thought as much myself. I suppose I was so far away from having the confidence to actually do anything about it that how I designated myself was largely irrelevant anyway. But other signs were there. Something that has always stuck in my mind is my reaction to a BBC documentary called “A Change Of Sex”. It was a documentary broadcast over several weeks, following a trans woman in her transition, going through the process of coming out to her family, changing name, medical interventions, psychological assessments and so on. There are two things in particular that remain in my mind. Firstly, my astonishment that such a thing was possible. Someone who was male, and whom you could initially see as male, becoming female. I grew up in a Catholic family in 1970’s Northern Ireland. These things were not discussed. In fact, thinking back now I find it quite surprising that the programme was on in my house at all. I don’t remember what my parents’ reaction was, but it was on and I was fascinated.
The second thing I remember is one scene in particular where the subject of the documentary went to meet her sister for the first time in her new guise, as her real self. Not that I particularly remember a great deal of content about the scene, but my mind just went off into one of those daydreams again where I imagined myself in some parallel future where it was me having that same meeting with my own sisters, everything was great and I was another sister. But that could only ever be a fantasy, I mean, things like that just aren’t possible for people like me, ordinary people. Not in 1978 anyway.
In the course of writing this post, I have done a little research and discovered that the programme in question was first broadcast on BBC2 in 1979, and the subject of the documentary was Julia Grant. Well I can honestly say that I may have forgotten her name, but I never forgot her story, and the possibilities that it showed me. And remember this was long before the Gender Recognition Act, when Julia remained legally male and with little or no protection from discrimination. A brave woman, a trailblazer in many ways. I salute her.
I have already written that I was the youngest child in the family. From a certain viewpoint I was the only child in the family. I am the youngest of five, but the other four are between 15 and 20 years older than me. So growing up, rather than feeling like the youngest of five siblings, it was more like being the only child of six parents. So the only toys I had access to were boys’ toys. No dolls for me. Not that I particularly had a yearning for dolls of my own, but I do remember that I became fascinated with a doll belonging to my niece. When my eldest sister had her second daughter in 1977 while living in England, my mum went over to stay with her and help out around the house for a couple of weeks while she recovered from the birth. I was only six years old, so I had to go with her, and the only toys that were available were things belonging to my eldest niece, who was not quite two years old yet. But she had a few dolls and a dolls’ pram, and I recall being completely obsessed with these things. Fixing their clothes, changing the styles, tucking them into the pram, doing their hair. I really remember the hair. I had a little doll’s hairbrush and I brushed that doll’s hair over and over again, putting it into different styles, tying it first one way and then another and another after that. Then I’d start all over again. For hours on end, or so it seems in my memory. I never even had an Action Man (that’s a GI Joe for American readers) at home. What I would have really loved, but would never have had the guts to ask for, was a Girl’s World. Makeup and hairstyling practice for endless hours of fun.
Among the childhood toys that I did have, I loved my bike. Still do. Football was not my thing. I was rubbish at it, but it was expected that a boy would join in the playground football match at school, and my inability to do so most definitely had a detrimental effect on my social standing. I just hated the rough and tumble of it. I actually don’t mind football as a spectator sport, but I have no urge to play it. And so much of a boy’s young social life revolved around playing football. So I ended up as something of a geeky outsider. I much preferred the joy of just riding round on my bike, where there was no element of competition, nobody was trying to beat you and you weren’t trying to beat anybody else. Or Lego, which I wouldn’t use on high-minded construction projects. No, my Lego was used to construct a floor plan of a house with some basic furniture, and then I would use a four-spot brick for Daddy, a two-spot brick for Mummy and two one-spot bricks for the kids and act out a family drama within the confines of this family dwelling I had created.
To go back to the start of this rambling post of transnostalgia, what were those comments that had jogged this? Well after my last post when I had written about the meal I had prepared for the “Come Dine With Me” competition, Ruth had written about how as a child she had loved to spend time in the kitchen with her mother. That wasn’t actually the case for me, I didn’t really start to enjoy cooking until adulthood, but it jogged a memory of something else. My mum and my sisters were knitters. My sisters still are. Most of my childhood and adolescence was soundtracked with an incessant clickety-clack of my mum’s knitting needles. Scarves, hats, gloves, jumpers, cardigans, aran sweaters when she was feeling particularly ambitious. And I wanted to be like my mum, so one day when I was still quite young, perhaps ten years old, I asked her if she would teach me how to knit. I don’t remember her having any other reaction than a simple “yes”. So I began to learn. Mum even gave me a little set of child-sized needles. I still remember the rhyme she taught me;
“In through the bunny hole
Round the big tree
Out through the bunny hole
And off goes she”
And that’s how to do a stitch. Unfortunately, my father and brother weren’t quite so enthusiastic that I should learn this skill. I’m pretty sure that I didn’t get very far in this new hobby, probably little more than a strip of knitted wool a few inches long, when my brother started at me. I was a boy, why was I knitting? Isn’t knitting for girls? I shouldn’t be doing that. I told my mum and she said it was ok for boys to knit because sailors have to do needlework. I don’t even know if that’s true, it seems a bit of an odd justification now I think about it, but it made some sort of sense at the time. So I carried on resolutely knitting for another few inches. But then it stopped. The needles were taken off me, my knitting career ended as abruptly as it had begun. My brother had complained to our dad that I shouldn’t be knitting, and my dad had put his foot down. His son was not going to be doing a girl’s activity, and it was to stop immediately. So that was the end of that.
And finally, there was the conversation with Mrs K. Nothing bad for once, she just made a comment that as a little girl and even as a teenager, she just dreamed of getting married and having a family. All she wanted was to be a wife and a mother. Didn’t everyone, she added. Well no. Not for me. And I tried to think of what I dreamt of. It wasn’t of family. It wasn’t of doing any particular job, of being rich and famous, or being an astronaut or a racing driver or anything like that. What I used to dream of was having my own place. Just an apartment, or a flat as they used to be called. An apartment where I could close the door, shut out the world, and be a girl. Where I could keep wardrobes full of all the clothing that I really wanted, not these monstrosities that society forced me to wear. It was as much as I dared to think might actually be possible. I would never have dreamed that I could ever walk out in public presenting female, that I might actually be on the brink of taking the step that Julia Grant took nearly 40 years before me. But here I am. It’s been a long time coming. But the more I reflect upon it, the more I realise that it has always been in me.