Monday, July 28, 2014

Questions for a trans woman in Eastern Europe

People ask... People ask so many things.

I enjoy the sessions after the readings perhaps better because they are spontaneous and livelier and I'm getting feedback ina way that cannot be offered me by the readings themselves.

I chose to read my "Letter To An Unknown Soldier"

http://www.1418now.org.uk/letter/jo-clifford-2/

which brought up questions about pacifism and Hitler and Tony Blair and my "Dear Scotland"

http://www.thespace.org/artwork/view/dearscotlandpoetspub#.U9ZzYSjJ50g

and that brought up questions about Scottish nationalism and Slovakia and Moravian independence and I performed extracts from my "Gospel According To Jesus Queen of Heaven"

http://www.teatrodomundo.com/

And that always gave the audience the chance to ask what it seemed they always wanted to ask: to ask me about being trans.

Respectful questions, not the intrusive kind about the shape of my genitalia that I was perhaps a little nervous of, but genuine questions of the kind it's always a pleasure to answer.

And it makes me glad that in my perverse kind of way I only followed to a necessary minimum all the advice to walk like a woman and gesture like a woman and talk like a woman so that I would blend in and successfully disguise my trans status.

Because sometimes it seems to me that the most important work i do, besides what i communicate through writing, is what i communicate through just being present with audiences.

Present and unashamed....

How have things changed for queer people in your country?

...And I talk of the complete absence of support and information I suffered from as a child in the sixties. And how at that time it was absolutely impossible for me to even begin to imagine that one day i would be able to live openly and be respected as a trans woman.

And yet here I am. And also to be welcomed and feel safe in your country too.

This feels like a miracle to me...

How does being trans affect your writing?

...And i say that what has made it possible for people like myself to be here is a profound and radical change in human consciousness, in the most fundamental ideas of what gender means. And that this change, in the western world at least, is unprecedented.

And its obvious that some people are going to be frightened and upset by this and try to resist it.

(And how sad that so often the Christian Church has made itself the standard bearer for this resistance)

Writers and artists are still trying to catch up with this change. I remember seeing "The Crying Game" when I was in my forties. And that was the first time I saw a trans person being portrayed as a human being.

Instead of as a monster, a laughing stock, or a freak...

And that makes my ambition to create a repertoire of dramatic work about being trans a hard one. I have hardly begun...

And Putin?

Putin is a sad damaged man possessed by self hatred. The Putins of this world will disappear, I answer.

Because history is on our side.


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Friday, July 25, 2014

Being a writer in a writer's festival

I am involved in an event of a scale I can scarcely conceive of.

30 Scottish writers and 50 writers from Eastern Europe shuttling back and forth between four cities in three countries giving readings in a massive festival of literature called The Authors' Reading Month.

Finding myself taking part in it reminds me of the time when I began working as a playwright and was officially not considered a writer at all. I remember struggling with the Arts Council to get myself included on some writer's list or other.... But there's not time to dredge up many more melancholy memories because before I know it I am on the stage of the Husa theatre in Brno for the first reading.

It's a beautiful space, renowned as a centre of opposition to communism, and still a hub of cultural and intellectual activity on a scale none of our theatres could even dream of. And I do my reading, trying my hardest t deal with the weird sensation of having no-one look at me, but instead gaze at the screen where the translation is; and then all of a sudden I am answering questions on vegetarianism, Moravian independence, the importance of fairy stories, and whether or not I believe in angels. And what are my views on the way Moravian women dress?

Obviously I have nothing but good wishes for the Moravian peoples struggles for self determination, and Moravian women's dress sense is of unparalleled elegance; and I feel a little bemused because there is obviously a massive disconnect between the status of the writer and intellectual here and my status at home, but there is no time to be bemused because before I know it I am eating delicious things on toast in the theatre courtyard and fending off endless invitations to beer and we are leaving at 7.15 the next morning, Dora Kaprálová and me, to travel to Košice in Slovakia. We travel in pairs around this festival, Dora is a Czech writer and film-maker based in Berlin who is reading from her new collection "The Winter Book Of Love" which sounds totally beautiful and which I wish I understood.

Košice turns out to be a stunningly beautiful city at the far end of Slovakia, tantalisingly close to Krakow and the Ukraine and Budapest, and I love the sense of being at the very centre of European history.

How strongly I feel our position in Scotland at the very edge of things. Of how useful that is for us. And how damaging.

After the reading a man comes up to me with tears in his eyes. I have performed my "Dear Scotland" monologue and it has moved him profoundly because every time I said 'Scotland' I could as well have been saying Slovakia and that has left him feeling so very very grateful.

People constantly say this: how grateful they are. They seem to come every night for a month to sit through 2 to 3 hours of reading and discussion and drink in every word. It astonishes and moves me.

Someone offers to take us out to supper afterwards, Mr Dali his name seems to be. A melancholy looking man who takes us down a melancholy looking street t a melancholy looking bar called The Green Zebra where we seem to be the only customers.

I feel a strange affinity to Mr Dali, even though we don't speak a word of each other's languages, as if he was someohow another version of myself. Who lives in a parallel universe and has remained a man.

He tells us he never goes to the cinema. The only film he has ever seen was called 'Melancolia' and he used to suffer from depression. But after seeing the film not any more and the sky is pitch black with massive lightning occasionally flashing across it and the thunder ominously rumbling.

A few waifs and strays are taking shelter from the storm, but nobody says much and the place is silent, mostly, except for the rain pattering on the tin roof and a crackling sound sometimes from the flies being fried by the insect exterminator.


We eat Wiener Schnitzel type things with soggy chipped potatoes and then walk back to our hotel through the thunder and lightning, and the lightning so dazzling by now it hurts my eyes and the thunder so loud it deafens my ears and the rain so torrential it makes my skirt heavy with the wetness of it and we are both laughing uncontrollably for some reason and Mr Dali kindly and heavily walking ahead to guide us through the empty streets.

As we shake hands on parting I look him directly in the eyes and tell him he is a very good man, perhaps because I am a little drunk but also because I don't like the thought of him going to another even sadder bar and getting drunk there alone.

Because that seems like the most likely outcome.

But there's no time, no time to think about it because early next day we are off to the other end of the Czech Republic...

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Setting out on a journey...



When I lived as a man, I was privileged in ways I could neither enjoy nor appreciate.

I could not enjoy it because, apart from my love for my partner and my love for my children,  there was so little I could enjoy as a man.

And I did not appreciate it because it was, and I imagine still is, so much a given in a man’s life, particularly a white middle class European man, that I did not notice it was there.

At least not until it was gone. And even now it has gone and I have lost it I find it hard to put my finger on exactly what it was or what it felt like.

But it had something to do with having an absolute right to be in the world. To be anywhere in the world. 

The minute I stepped out of manhood I seemed to lose it completely. Everyone in the street who perceived I was trans, or maybe that I was just different, appeared to believe they had every right to say the most wounding, derogatory, and unpleasant things in my presence, often as if I simply wasn’t there, and then seemingly feel superior for having done it.

I had to work very hard to get out my front door sometimes. I remember the hazardous journey I used to be forced to take out to the Gender Clinic in the Royal Infirmary. It used to involve two waits at the bus stop, two different bus journeys - always dangerous times - and then a long journey down a frightening corridor to the clinic. Which was situated next to gynecology.

There was an unspoken assumption that it was necessary to make this journey in a skirt, which made it all the more frightening, somehow, and I remember arriving early one afternoon and the sun was shining and there was an empty bench just outside the hospital entrance. I sat and enjoyed the warmth of the sun and the sensation of wearing a skirt in the open air and the sense that I really was on a journey to myself and - most important - that I had the right to be there.

This was a new sensation: having the right to be in the world. Without needing to justify; without needing to conceal.

That moment happened long ago now, but I still treasure it.

I guess it laid the foundations of the confidence i feel now; a confidence which is, however, still tinged by an awareness of being under scrutiny.

Every woman suffers this. A younger, more attractive woman suffers it far more than me, because if she is judged sexually attractive she is vulnerable to harassment.

But me, being old and unattractive means I am consistently ignored.

And that may be galling; but it is also a blessing.

An aspect of the old male privelege was that I also had the right to travel anywhere. Now many regions of the world are unsafe for transgendered women. And so unsafe for me. 

For I also realise that I live as peacefully and as safely as I do because I live in Scotland. 

Thinking of this just now as I pack my bag and my woman’s passport to set off to Eastern Europe. I am performing a half hour programme of readings in 4 cities in the Czech Republic, in Slovakia, and in Poland.

And it occurs to me I don’t think I have performed abroad before.

And I have no idea what will happen: but also, although nervous, I am incredibly eager to find out.

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