In this the second instalment of KaleidoScots interview with Jo Clifford writer/star of critical Edinburgh Festival Fringe sensation, she explains her personal history, her inspirations, and also summarises what it means to be transsexual in today’s world.
Where did your love of storytelling came from?
The first thing I have a memory of when I was a boy, was a book called My Beautiful Book of Legends – which I used to think of as My Beautiful Book of Leggings.
I giggle at her knowing self-deprecation.
It was my favourite book and when I was sent away to my first boarding school at the age of eight, I took that book with me.
At that first school, they produced a play once a year and I loved being part of it, and used to look forward to them as I had discovered that I cherished performing, although they were always musicals, and I was told that I couldn’t sing, so that upset me.
The sadness in Jo’s voice here is still palpable, even after all those intervening and eventful years.
I started my next boarding school when I was thirteen. When I was fourteen, an older boy approached me and asked me if I’d “like to be in the house play”, and I said “yeah”, and he asked me if I’d “like to play the girl’s part” in Sylvia and Amos.
She lets out a gentle, happy laugh.
I felt completely at home in the rehearsal room, I just adored it there.
Suddenly I became confident, I wasn’t shy anymore – I felt there was a place for me in the world. Looking back on it, it was just happiness – I had discovered my vocation in life. I then played other girls parts. By the time I was about fifteen or sixteen, I understood that I wanted to be a girl. That was also very painful and difficult for me, because in those days there was no awareness of transgender, or anything like that – the words didn’t even exist.
I nod sadly, as she speaks as the pain of what she felt back then still seems very raw.
I thought I was the only person like that in the world and that I was a really horrible, sick person and if people came to knew who I was that I would die if shame. I knew that I would be bullied at school, and at boarding school people can be bullied almost to death, it was terrible.
My only option was to try to be – normal.
Despite the gentleness of her voice, there is no shortage of irony in the way she says that particular ghastly ‘n’ word.
The unfortunate thing was this intense fear and shame got tangled-up with my love of acting where I could play female roles and although having made that decision that I would try to be normal, I also wanted to keep on acting, so I went for the male roles and found that I could no longer act.
Which looking back makes me very angry. The level of emotional abuse was so great that it destroyed my vocation. It was a long, long, long journey to recover who I was.
“Did that involve self-discrimination and self-sacrifice, too?”
Of course – that’s how the system works.
She refills her teacup, as if using it as a prop as if to recover some strength.
We collaborate in our own repression. Internalised repression, internalised transphobia.
It’s a fixture of every form of abuse, and we transgender people suffer from it particularly badly and then so often, sadly, we abuse and are horrid to each other for the same reason. It’s a pernicious and horrible, horrible thing. So that meant from the age of sixteen, theatre became a place of shame and fear for me.
What saved my life, was by that stage I had already decided to be a writer and through my love of stories, partly that little book, and keeping a diary and notebooks, and reading all the great literature.
Jo lets out a gentle laugh.
I thought I was going to be a novelist. I got completely put on the wrong path – HA! And I spent the next fifteen years trying to write novels. Failing completely, I couldn’t finish anything and gave-up after around eighteen pages mark, I just got so bored of writing “he said” or ”she said”, “they replied”.
We both chuckles as only fellow scriptwriters would at this anachronistic literary convention.
Yet, I still had this incredibly strong pull towards theatre, and I expressed it through study and I became an expert in Seventeenth Century Spanish Theatre – an arcane specialism; reading the works of Calderón, Lupe de Vega, Tirso de Molina – all these people who mean nothing to most people, especially back then – but they were my heroes and I started to do a PhD on them. It was extraordinary that I did that.
Through a series of outrageous chances I realised I was a playwright by the age of thirty, and my first original play was produced when I was thirty-five. It took twenty years to even partially recover from the trauma of boarding school. But I still didn’t think of myself as a performer at all. I was a playwright – although, I was acting all the roles in my head as I wrote them.
Over time I became more open as a trans person. Then this love and need to perform started to come out. It was after my fiftieth birthday, in 2003 that I first performed in public, in God’s New Frock and the urge to perform has been growing in me ever since.
I then asked her what else inspires her, she happily explains.
Coming-out as transsexual is a really profound process, but in the old days, when I was living as a man, I didn’t see myself as someone who was oppressed at all. I thought of myself as screwed-up person and if I was unhappy, then probably I deserved to be.
But by coming-out, and coming-into myself, I realised the extent to trans people suffer, and that it is tied into the oppression that women suffer and how it is all this is tied into patriarchy – things that used to pre-occupy my partner Sue Innes, who was such a fierce feminist. I become very determined because when I started to see myself as an activist while working with James Morton and the Scottish Transgender Alliance (- coincidentally, Jo and her family have known James Morton since he was a child). He has really transformed the way I see myself. I am now someone who has a job to help bring this oppression to an end – that’s a massive life-time task. But I can do what I can, by writing stories, by being visible in public. Just being out there, is very frightening a lot of the time, certainly frightening with this play, but it’s incredibly important, just to be there.
Whenever I do a reading, or a lecture, I know that in the audience there will be at least one person who hasn’t encountered an out transwoman before. Oh, I remember once I was in a book shop, and this very timid man came-up to me, in this suit, and he said.
“Excuse me. Are you Jo Clifford?”
I replied “yeah”, and then he came out, there and then.
He said “I don’t feel like I’m a man – I’m a transsexual – what should I do? I’m always on the point of coming-out, but it’s just too difficult”.
And I said “just come-out – once you’ve done it, it’s not quite as hard as you think it’s going to be, when you start to live your life, because you are not going to be happy – ever – until you do.”
And they said “thank you very much” and went away. Months later, I was at one of those LGBT swimming sessions at Glenogle Swim Centre, and this woman came-up to me looking radiant in a swimsuit and with a cap on, grinning from ear to ear, and she said “do you remember me?”
Myself and Jo both laugh infectiously.
And I said, “Um, oh, no?” But that was the person who come-up to me in the bookshop, and she said “I followed your advice – thank you!”
That touched me very deeply.