In Scotland, we’re a week away from the closure of consultation on one of the most divisive issues of our times. There’s been a war on social media for the best part of the last three years and apart from the odd like here and there, I’ve abstained.
I know good people, friends, on both ‘sides’ of the debate. Some understand why I haven’t ventured. Others are more critical. I have, they say, not been as supportive as I should have been — in either direction. I have let them — and causes dear to us — down.
I’d be lying if I said the toxicity of the discourse hadn’t made me step away. I’m hardly alone there — and I’ve worried a lot about its impact on already tough lives.
But anyone who knows me will know I’m no stranger to exploring and commentating on difficult issues. So why not this one? In truth, my reticence is as much about a sense of conflict as any amount of apprehension.
And my lack of written words shouldn’t be mistaken for lack of thought — or even spoken ones, albeit in private. In fact, the vexed question of trans rights has rarely been far from my head for a long time now.
I’ve not enjoyed being silent. How could I? The issue is far from unconnected to my life. Goodness knows it would be easier if it was. I spent my formative adult years immersed in the struggle for gay rights at a time when it wasn’t quite the cause du jour it is today.
Now I think it’s time to start to share the journey I’ve been on to try to make sense of the issues. It’s a journey that hasn’t led me to a place where I feel comfortable taking one ‘side’ or another. That won’t be good enough for some. But there it is.
It’s a long one too — and it goes back a long way. It’s deeply personal and fiercely political and I can’t do it justice in one piece.
So — this is part one — of how many I’m not sure.
To many friends’ astonishment, I’ve never watched The Sound of Music all the way through. But let’s start at the very beginning because it’s a very good place to start.
I’m standing at the bottom of the garden. I’m seven, maybe eight, I can’t quite recall. But it was before I’d started to explore my body.
I have a feeling between my legs. I’ve can’t describe it and know it can’t be spoken. But it’s a nice feeling, kind of warm and tingly. It’s not the first time I’ve had it and it has a name — in my head at least. I call it a ‘girlie’ feeling. I must mention it to no one.
I’ve carried that memory with me for the last 50 years but until the last few weeks, never said it out loud. It’s always been about my sexual awakening and even, with hindsight, my emerging sexuality. But why I called it girlie, I’ve never quite understood.
A few years later I start to masturbate. To begin with there are no fantasies. It’s just something I can do which brings me pleasure.
It’s the last year of primary school and in the playground, we start to talk about something called shagging. We whisper and chuckle. It’s naughty and dirty but to me at least it’s exciting.
In time, I make the connection between the pleasure I get from touching my body and my attraction to other bodies. But they are male bodies, whereas all the boys around me are talking about female bodies.
Around this time — I must have been 13 or 14 — something else happens. I start to try on my mother’s clothes. I do it in secret, of course, and only when everyone is out. It must be in the bathroom because that’s the only room in the house with a lock on the door.
My interest in women’s clothes isn’t entirely new. I can remember playing with my friend Louise when I was six, trying on old frocks and shoes from her mother’s dressing up box. Traipsing around her house and garden in over-sized heels giggling. I had a notion I wasn’t supposed to be doing it because I was a boy. But I did.
Now, in adolescence, scurrying into the bathroom with a black and gold maxi skirt of my mother’s isn’t just about innocent fun or even aesthetics. I’ll spare you the detail, but it’s sexually charged too.
I don’t quite know what to make of it all. There’s a lot going on.
I’m trying on women’s clothes. I have emotional crushes on Donny Osmond and David Cassidy and sexual fantasies about male teachers though not the boys around me. And to top it all I’m starting to have girlfriends, because, well, that’s what boys do.
As time goes by, my attraction to boys becomes stronger. But my desire to be one, and to be one of the boys, does too.
Partly it’s a form of disguise. If I become one of them, I can’t be accused of being ‘one of them’ — which I have been a bit. Because I’m skinny and shy and bit ‘arty’, to coin a phrase one school friend used when I came out to him later.
But it’s also because, in time, I like being a boy. I become more comfortable in my own skin. I’m into drama but I’m serious about sport too. One’s a bit girlie, the other isn’t.
Looking back, I still wasn’t quite as boyish as some of my friends. In my last years at school, at Rotters in Stockport, I certainly danced round more handbags than them — not mine obviously. Earth, Wind and Fire’s September was a particular favourite.
But I got away with it and it even made me quite popular with some of the girls. Anyway, this was the era of Saturday Night Fever and John Travolta was no poof.
There were still girlfriends though it never quite worked out. There were crushes on boys — a couple especially — but they closely guarded secrets. Mine and mine alone.
I came out tentatively to a friend just after school was out for the last time in the summer of ’79. It was the beginning of something — that much I knew. But it was also the end of the first chapter of a long story that’s still unfolding.
It’s a story of taking, to use Robert Frost’s words, ‘the road less traveled by.’ For the most part it’s a story I’ve told about my emergent sexuality — and what happened next.
But as the trans rights debate has raged with ever greater ferocity, I’ve come to understand it’s a story about my relationship with sex and gender too.
Part two follows…