During the 1983 Bermondsey by-election, the British press, tiring of their daily homophobic attacks on Peter Tatchell, picked up an article I wrote in the sexual politics section of a small but influential left-wing Labour journal. The article was about how I believed that cross-dressing challenged conventional ideas of masculinity. It included a picture of me in a dress.
The journalists seized on my story, passing it around and featuring me on the inside page of nearly every single newspaper, printing my name, the street I lived in and where I worked. The ‘family friendly’ Daily Mail reporter went further, ringing up my house, pretending to be a social worker, and asking my first wife how she felt about the damage I was supposedly doing to our children. My story ran for ten days as the papers decided when to use my so-called ‘confessional’ to fill a vacant column. There was no ‘public interest’ justification for picking on me, I didn’t hold public office and I hadn’t committed a crime, I was an active constituency member of the Labour Party and that was enough for their purposes.
When The Sun printed my story I was ‘outed’ in front of the students at the London secondary school where I taught. It was the fourth day in ‘my story’ and I’d already been questioned by a few pupils who’d got wind of something, but being on page three in the most-read British newspaper guaranteed wall-to-wall notoriety. Realising I’d nowhere to go to, the apocalyptic words of the song Sinner Man ran through my head as I walked into school with 2,000 pairs of eyes trained on me – or that’s how it felt. They were leaning out of windows and gathering at the doors, awaiting my arrival, curious to see how I looked. To be honest, most of that was in my head, but I knew they expected a dramatic entrance. Maybe I’d roll up as a drag queen, tiptoe in as a flower fairy, or appear in assembly as a panto dame? Certainly, my status had changed. From now on I would be scrutinised for tell-tale ‘signs’ – my hair length, my fingernails, the pitch of my voice, the way I walked – and if I didn’t give them cause then I was in hiding, guilty of a crime I’d tried to cover up.
Coming out was a shock. It was as if I’d become a character in a TV exposé. It felt like I was see-through, held up as something ‘other’, and my day clothes – male, of course – couldn’t hide me. I no longer possessed my own story, I’d become the property of the Press, talked about and ridiculed and subject to false witness, so that the person I’d been no long existed. My humanity had been brought into question. I was the sum of a number of derogatory terms, including ‘weirdo’, ‘transvestite’, ‘deviant’ and ‘public enemy’.
That first day at school I went in blind. I didn’t quote my right to silence or claim mistaken identity but I did hold out a hope that it might blow over. And at first there was a lull. My own classes refused to believe it. They didn’t want me ‘like that’, and since they didn’t ask I didn’t have to tell. They still respected me and I preferred it that way. I felt like the captain of a ship surrounded by storms who keeps a quiet light burning on deck.
But on the corridor I was stared at by girls and avoided by boys who turned and flattened themselves against the wall as if I might carry a dangerous disease. The boys were particularly reactive. Behind my back they sniggered or guffawed or muttered darkly, ‘bums against the wall lads’. Others who were too busy or not bothered walked past ignoring me, while some, usually girls, stepped up and asked quietly, ‘Why do you want to do that, sir?”
I soon came to realise that their sympathy, however well-intentioned, wasn’t what it seemed. They weren’t interested in learning about cross-dressing, what they wanted to know was ‘why do that at all?’ and, ultimately, ‘Why can’t you stop it?’
I found my reply. It’s still with me today as the beginning of my story. I didn’t try to offer theories, describe my experiences, or talk them through the long history of trans people. When they asked me, ‘Why do you want to do that, sir?” I simply answered “Why not?”
Next week’s blog, MY OUTING Part 2 – A DREAM, is a short story exploring my early memories of crossing the gender divide.
The story of my cross-dressing is part of my autobiography Heaven’s Rage. In brief: ‘Heaven’s Rage is an imaginative autobiography. Reporting on feelings people don’t usually own up to, Leslie Tate explores addiction, cross-dressing and the hidden sides of families. Writing lyrically, he brings together stories of bullying, childhood dreams, thwarted creativity and late-life illness, discovering at their core the transformative power of words to rewire the brain and reconnect with life. “A Robin Red breast in a Cage / Puts all Heaven in a Rage” – William Blake. You can read more about/buy Heaven’s Rage here.
ABOUT MY NOVELS:
- Purple is a coming-of-age novel, a portrait of modern love and a family saga. Set in the North of England, it follows the story of shy ingénue Matthew Lavender living through the wildness of the 60s and his grandmother Mary, born into a traditional working-class family. Both are innocents who have to learn more about long-term love and commitment, earning their independence through a series of revealing and closely-observed relationships. Purple is the first part of the Lavender Blues trilogy.
- Blue tells the story of Richard and Vanessa Lavender, who join a 90s feminist collective sharing childcare, political activism and open relationships. Boosted by their ‘wider network’ they take secondary partners, throw parties and observe the dance of relationships amongst their friends. But finding a balance between power and restraint, and handling shared love, proves difficult… Blue is the second part of the Lavender Blues trilogy.