What a week of extremes. From performance poetry and the realisation that I have credibility as a woman and as a writer, to sitting writing a really simple but difficult letter to my mother. Until this week, her not-quite-famous daughter was just a son who had gone quiet of late. We have never been especially close, and I have always felt awkward with her. Ever since I was as small as I can remember, there were always things I knew just shouldn’t be said or asked. Even if something was self-evidently true, or you needed to know about something unmentionable, a single disapproving look, a pause in conversation, a silence – would remind me to shut up.
Somehow that meant not just questions about sex, but also about emotions, about love, about listening. It sounds harsh, even unkind, but it wasn’t. We bumped along, pretending we weren’t strapped for cash, socially detached, never entertaining friends and neighbours, being a model family and silent about the skeletons in the cupboards. And we had our share. We have a track record on those members of the family about which we do not speak.
It feels related; a story I kept to myself for well over forty years has been told only now. I was 12, maybe 13, in a single-sex grammar school. It was the age when kids start to have crushes, and everyone else seemed to mix with friends that included girls, so it was becoming a regular thing to inscribe personal belongings with ‘I love (Gillian)’ (replace as appropriate). Of course, I didn’t. As a family we did not have a social life, and I certainly wasn’t guided to even ‘suitable’ social venues for kids. Maybe it was the money, or the lack of transport. Maybe it was because we had to be different in order to avoid being identified a less well off – or that people as less well off as we were just weren’t as nice. Anyhow, not to be left out, I inscribed my red geometry set case very neatly (and I normally looked after my things so impeccably well) with ‘I love me’. Nothing could have been so shameful. So with the best match of red electrical insulating tape she could find, my mum covered over my pride and arrogance, even narcissism, and made me proper and respectable again.
How do you feel good about yourself, celebrate any achievement when you are told it is wrong to love yourself? If I didn’t feel like a boy, if I felt left out of my sister’s progress into puberty and adolescence, if I felt pushed into a grey hole where I had to learn to be a proper man, even when certain things were already screaming at me because I didn’t want to be like that, then the last thing in the world was to even think about it, let alone love myself enough to have the inner, honest conversation. I had secrets and hidden things from the age of 14, and I hated myself for it, guilty and angry that I should feel like that, let alone do anything about it. For every success I refused recognition. To think you were good, even excellent, was arrogance and pride. I wasn’t good enough; I never could be. So I was consistently top of the class? I was a concert soloist on two instruments? I went to university, gained a first class honours in an arts degree, with science A-levels behind me, and did a masters? When everyone else was jumping up and down, hugging, calling parents excitedly, celebrating, going out on the town, I phoned home and said simply: ‘Yes, I got the first.’ And that was that.
My sister and I agreed that she should be the bearer of the news in person. There was no softer or easier way of doing it. I knew that I could not risk there ever being a call to her bedside, where I would appear for the very first time as a daughter – and no, we don’t see each other very much at all. So my sister, who has been amazing in coming to terms with me as a woman, made the difficult decision to travel up and tell our mum everything. Well I couldn’t just phone, could I?
‘Hi Mum; it’s me’
‘Oh. Hello. Sorry; your voice sounds funny.’
‘I’m just ringing to let you know I’ve moved into a flat on my own. We’ve separated.’
‘Oh no! That’s terrible. What’s happened, I thought you were so happy?’
‘Mum. I’m a woman. I’m your daughter.’
Whereupon the silence to end all silences. No; that wasn’t a good way of saying it.
So I sat writing a letter to try and unravel a lifetime of undescribed, hidden, mis-understood, gender dysphoria. She knows now, and doesn’t want to see me, though perhaps I could phone. Thank goodness your father never had to know. What would the neighbours think? Of course I can’t tell anyone; this must never get out. So what do I say?
Somewhere behind my knowledge of body, there is a body of knowledge she will never know. She won’t remember it more strongly than what she knew about sex and gender when we could never speak of it before. Clinical or scientific explanations won’t do. It’s just my word, my strangeness, my deviance. She probably thinks I’m some weird kind of transvestite, doing kinky things, rather than a very ordinary woman with a very plain life. And there it may lie. I hope not. A few nights ago I was thinking: I could have been her daughter, and our relationship would have been completely different as a result.
How can I tell her: I really do love myself?
PS. I did phone, and actually it is alright. I am surprised. Very surprised really. She will get used to it in time, and she will accept me as I am, though I expect imagining me as a daughter will take a little longer.