Monday, December 24, 2012

A Christmas letter to the Pope

Your Holiness,

I am writing to you because you have been writing about me. You are telling me that I am calling into question “the very notion of being" and also the notion "of what being human really means” and that I am living out a theory whose “profound falsehood... is obvious”.

You seem to be misinformed about me, Your Holiness, and I wanted to write to you in all friendliness to help you understand me better. Because I am not alone in this, there are a great many of us, and perhaps more than you imagine; and if you continue in this vein I am afraid you will only continue to look foolish and bring the Catholic Church into disrepute.

I am so pleased you enjoyed your experiences abroad this year, and the experience of being acclaimed by multitudes. I hope it reminds you how much good spiritual leadership is needed in this dark and suffering world. But I believe there are many millions more waiting for you to communicate the truths of love and commit yourself to the cause of justice, peace, and human liberation.

I should introduce myself. I was born in a male body and brought up by loving parents to be a man. However from a very early age I found myself suffering from the unshakeable, profound and to me completely inexplicable feeling that there was a mismatch between the gender I was told I belonged to, and that my body told me I belonged to, and the gender to which in my deep self I felt I belonged.

For fifty years I followed the advice I imagine your church would urge on me and did everything I could to suppress and deny this feeling. I was so blessed to be happily married for 33 years and to have two beautiful loving children and to achieve success as a writer.

But this did not ease my suffering or my feeling of somehow not being true to my deep self. Indeed, it all intensified with the passing of time.

It was a torment, your Holiness, that I can assure you. The suffering involved in what is now termed “gender dysphoria” is not something I would wish on my worst enemy.

Sadly, my wife died before we were able to resolve this together. It was only after her death, and with my children grown up, that I was able to take the hormones and have the necessary surgery to enable me to live as a woman.

Since then I have been able to find peace.

I did intend to have full Gender Re-assignment Surgery, which you call “mutilation”, though I can assure you it has saved many many lives and enabled countless people, like myself, to live happier and more fulfilled lives.

I do not understand why you would wish to prolong our suffering.

I should add, perhaps, that a heart condition prevented me from having the full operation and in the end I opted for having my testes removed. 

So I suppose I am now what the Bible calls a “eunuch”; and although you would, I am sure, deplore the step I have taken I hope you will forgive me if I remind you of the passage in Matthew (19:12) in which Jesus Himself acknowledges and blesses our existence. I would also add that many of us draw great comfort and strength from the passage in Acts (8:26) in which the Apostle Philip baptises the Ethiopian eunuch and accepts him/her into the church without the slightest hesitation. Perhaps it is not too great a stretching of the text to understand “eunuch” as referring to all gender variant people.

I know you find our existence troubling, and would like to “put a stop” to us and all that we represent; but I have to tell you that you will fail.

You quote the Bible story which asserts “male and female created He them”; I take this as a very beautiful assertion of the fact that we are all a mix of male and female; and I take the greatest pleasure in the knowledge that a Rabbinical school  interpreted this text to mean that the very first human being was an androgyne.

Gender variant people like myself have been in existence for almost as long as recorded history, and we are acknowledged and celebrated in most of the cultures that exist in the world. I refer to the hijra  of India, the waria  and bissu  of Indonesia, the kathoey  of south east Asia, the muxe  of Mexico, the two spirit people  of North America, and many more besides.

For myself, I would not claim to be a woman; but I can certainly live as one. And live very happily and contentedly too.

This Christmas, I am looking forward to being with my daughters, my sons-in-law, my mother-in-law, and my baby grandson. We love each other, and on the whole we get on very well; and I am sure none of us understand how we are “part of the attack we are currently experiencing on the true structure of the family”.

I assure you, your Holiness, we are experiencing no such thing. My dear grandson will grow up knowing he is loved by his mother and his father and by his grandmothers too. He will also come to understand very early on that one grandmother is also his mother’s father, and this will seem to him the most natural thing in the world.

There are many children growing up like him, your Holiness. You cannot prevent it; and I am sure the world will become a kinder and less prejudiced place as a result.

I imagine your Christmas will be a lonely one, your Holiness, and I am sad about that. We have both been blessed with the great gift of sexuality, which has given me, and continues to give me, profound joy and pleasure. 

You have devoted your life to renouncing this gift. How this differs from the “manipulation of nature” which you so eloquently denounce I cannot claim to understand; but leaving the rights and wrongs of it aside, I know for sure this must cause you the profoundest suffering.

I feel for you in this, because for so many years I denied myself also.

And because you, like me, are human, I know that in spite of your very best intentions you will find it almost impossible not to make others suffer as a result.

All the more reason, your dear Holiness, to wish you a very Happy Christmas.

Yours sincerely,

Jo Clifford

Friday, December 21, 2012

On being asked to buy madeira cake for the jubilee

I publish my rather eccentric contribution to the Unstated collection of essays because I feel proud to be part of such an important collection and want to encourage everyone to read it.

It contains such beautiful intelligent work, including Alasdair Gray’s erudite and subtly argued essay (which has been disgracefully misrepresented in the ensuing controversy) and an especially wise and compassionate piece from Christopher Whyte about the role of shame in forming Scottish culture.

Whyte’s is the kind of piece I would have loved to have written, but completely failed to, partly I think because I was half out of my mind with concern about my mother-in-law at the time but partly also, I can’t help thinking, because as a transsexual I suffer from a profound sense of shame. I am so lucky to have been able to work in theatre because it has given such assistance to overcome it; but not an accompanying sense of inadequacy and unworthiness that I distinctly remember feeling as I sat down to try to write the essay.

Who was I, I found myself thinking, to write about Scottish independence? Nobody really...

Enough of a somebody to write this, at least:

Marks and Spencer are trying to persuade me to buy a Madeira cake.

Madeira cake with union-jack icing. And shortbread in a tin shaped like a London double-decker bus. And a biscuit tin with the queen’s head on it. They seem to assume there’s something I want to celebrate. Something to do with being British. Something to do with the Queen. Well thank you Mr. Marks. And thank you Ms. Spencer. And how wonderful this dear old lady has been doing her job so well for so many years. (Do you know if she’s thinking of retiring?)

Please understand: this is not a criticism. I know you have your shareholders to consider. And that they demand your sales grow year by year by year and that you therefore keep needing to produce more and more merchandise to try to satisfy the insatiable black hole of the world financial system.
In that way you’re just like the rest of us: helpless slaves of the market. Of economic forces none of us are able to control or understand or bring to a halt. You remind me a bit of my mother-in-law. She’s an admirable woman who’s worked hard all her life and tried to do her best by the world. Her heart’s been wearing out, as machines always do, and economic systems as well, and has been functioning less and less efficiently.

Those of us who loved her could see what was coming: we knew she had to change her ways and prepare for a day when her heart would simply no longer function. But she refused to listen. And now she’s in a geriatric ward. She doesn’t understand how she got there and none of us can see any way out. One neighbour weeps all the time and never says a word. The other is forever calling out for long dead relatives to come and help her. But they can’t, of course. Being dead.

They remind me of the European Central Banks and the IMF: lamenting the loss of old prosperities and forever trying to apply remedies that may have worked in the past. But not now. But they hold onto them, because they seem to represent old certainties. In desperate times, even hard words like “austerity” and “balancing the books” seem to have a comforting ring, somehow. 

It’s not just the economy lying in the geriatric ward. Most of our ideas about the world and most of the ways we try to live in it are in the same condition. Old, worn out, tired: no longer fit for a changing world. We are utterly bound to an oil-based economy even though we know reserves are running out and even though we know using them increases the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to a dangerous and deadly degree. We know there is a connection between this and climate change. For a while this seemed to affect only a few islanders in the midst of the Pacific ocean, or a few hundred million people in distant and low-lying countries like Bangladesh. 
But we could cope with that. Buying a new car or installing a new central heating system seemed more of a priority. As did the new flat-screen TV. But now we know our own climate is changing in wildly unpredictable ways.

But we cannot change the way we live.

We are tempted to turn to atomic power to sustain our lifestyles: but we know this, too, is vulnerable to natural forces far stronger than ourselves. We saw the tsunami destroy the power station in Fukushima . Even the few consequences we know about are enough to terrify us: never mind those that are kept hidden from us. I keep thinking of words I wrote way back in 1985, in Losing Venice:

You remember the story our teacher told.
Of the wise man who built his house upon 
the rock and the foolish one who built
his on the sand?  We built ours on the mud.
We compromised.
And now we are sinking.
Year by year the tide water rises.
Already it has flooded our cellars;
Soon it will beat against our doors.
Then the waves will come and wash us
from the face of the earth.
The clouds gather. The storm is rising.
And it will come. Nothing can stop it.
We know. We laugh when we can;
We live, as we must.
Fear eats away our hearts. Will it spare us,
We wonder, will it spare our children?
Yet what can we do? Tear down our city?
Label the stones and move them, stone by stone,
Rebuild them on the higher ground?
All our energy is taken up with living.
Besides, is there any mountain high enough
to hide us,
Is there depth enough in any cave?
I doubt it. Crying is easy.
Laughter requires a little more strength.

What I meant by those last words, I think, is that we should try the best we can to avoid giving way to despair and keep hope alive in our hearts. And that art has a role to play in that. 

I know from my own experience that my capacity to create art has saved me from self-hatred and despair. My work with other transsexual people in helping them find their creative voice has also demonstrated, time and time again, that creativity is a powerful force for the oppressed. 

In my own work I consistently try to be unfashionably hopeful; I see each play as a little act of resistance against the despair industry of the media that so endlessly tries to disempower us.

And it's true: it is hard to keep hope alive when the levers of power are often so rusted, so corroded and corrupt; and when every politician knows that it would be political suicide to carry out the changes required.

What’s more, we are part of a country that apparently regards it as fundamental to its safety and identity to possess weapons of mass destruction however grotesquely expensive they may be. And however absurdly inept. Whether they are nuclear submarines that run aground on sandbanks or aircraft carriers that have no aircraft, no-one in the political establishment seems able to see them as anything but crucial to “great Britain” or the “United Kingdom”.

The truth is obvious: we are part of a disunited kingdom whose other title really should be Insignificant Britain. Mediocre Britain. Living delusionally in the past Britain. Suffering false memory syndrome Britain. Britain stranded in the geriatric ward of history. A terminal case.

So what do we do? How do we resist as we struggle at the same time to get to grips with the massive unavoidable changes that need to take place within ourselves and the way we perceive the world?

To realise that genetics turns our common understanding of medicine into something completely outdated. To begin to grasp that our understanding of the universe as a piece of Newtonian clockwork no longer fits the facts. To try to encourage our imagination and intellect to understand what relativity means. Try to get to grips with the fact that our traditional views of what makes a man a man and a woman a woman are of very little use at all. In other words we have to try to stop being flat-earthers.

But then so many people still are. It’s all too easy for the need to change to fill us with fear; and for the fear to make us cling on to old certainties. Whether they’re the Bank of England, the Mother of Parliaments, the literal truth of the Holy Bible or the Treaty of Union.

You could argue that in the context of everything else this is pretty trivial stuff. And how dismaying the fright of many people scared to move on from it. How contemptible that no-one seems to be capable of coming up with a single positive reason to remain in the Union. The only arguments its supporters seem able to muster are fear. Fear of losing our credit rating. Fear of border controls. Fear of losing the monarchy. Fear of losing defence contracts. Fear of change.

Can we really not find just a tiny bit of courage? Does it really make sense to stay attached to England? To a failing state governed in the interest of the City of London with its tiny coterie of obscenely wealthy bullies, thieves and robbers? A state hopelessly stuck in dreams of past glory, forever trying to “pull above its weight”, humiliatingly stuck in a self deluding “special relationship” with its colonial master, incapable of creating any positive vision of its future?

My dear mother-in-law used every ounce of imagination and strength to deny the changes old age was forcing upon her. It did her no good at all. Change is coming, whether we like it or not.

Let’s try, even if in our own small and insignificant way, to do our best to embrace it.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Lucy: light on a mountain

I'm posting this today from my LUCY'S PLAY, because today is St. Lucy's day.

It was performed in the Traverse in 1986, directed by Jenny Killick, with a lovely cast including Kate Duchene as Lucy, Ida Schuster as Celia and the Mother of God, and Simon Scott as Pedro.
Sadly, Simon passed away recently so this is also in tribute to him.
Beautiful actors.
Light in a dark world.

Help me find my son.

There are no children here.

He wasn't a child. He was a man. 
He had dark hair and bright green eyes. 
And when he laughed, you had to laugh with him. 
When he wept, you had to weep too. 
But he was too good for this world. 
They strung him up and they killed him. 
And after they'd done that they even stole his corpse.
And now his picture's everywhere. I see it in all the churches. I run to each one, hoping to find him. But they're all fakes. Every one of them. 
The things that are done in his name must surely make him weep. But if I could find him, I'd wipe away his tears. 
I'd embrace him in my arms and we'd be whole again. Then I'd be happy. 
And so I travel from town to town, and my back is sore and my feet are just one big mass of blisters and I'm getting tired. 
I'm just about ready to leave this place altogether but I tell myself he must be somewhere. Must be. 
And I have to laugh at some of the statues. Statues of me. 
Awful sentimental. I mean if they knew what I'm really like they'd run a mile. I know they would. And the pictures. Of him and me. In the worst possible taste. Him and his wee willie. And they're nothing like him. Nothing at all. 
I mean he was nice enough as a baby, don't get me wrong, I loved him, but he was a wee terror just the same. And at night he was terrible. Wouldn't let me sleep a wink. On at me all the time. Pawing at me. Like he wanted to suck me dry. And when he got bigger he was worse. Talking all the time. Never a minute's peace. About the law. And the prophets. Couldn't understand a word. And the son of man. 
Said he was the son of man. I told him he wasn't the son of man, he was my own son and he could he no just leave us alone? 
But o no. It was Moses. And the ark of the covenant. At the age of three. And when you're his mother you've got to take an interest. 
Wore me out, he did. I was glad enough to see him leave home. And then I missed him. The house seemed that empty with him gone. So off I went. On the road. At my age. Bethesda. Gennesaret. Capernaum. All they places. And he spoke like an angel. 
Everyone came to see him. Everyone for miles. 
His voice was the loveliest thing you ever heard. Listening to it you felt like you'd give up everything, everything you ever had just to hear him for always. People did. Good people. My friends. 
And then they took him away and they hung him. 
And I lost him again. My heart still bleeds. 
Have you no seen him?

No. He isn't here. He's never been here. 
And you must go too. You're in danger. 
There's going to be a war. I can feel it in my bones. 
And I want to stop it. 
But nothing I do makes any difference, 
And nothing I do makes any sense.

Don't despair my love. You are Lucy, light on the mountain. 
If you have light, do you hide it under a bucket? Do you cover it up with a stone? 
No. You put it high on a hillside, 
Where everyone can see it. You can't help it. 
And you can't put it out. It's in the nature of light. 
It was Him who taught me that. Don't forget. 
And don't lose hope. Peace will come. 
The good you do is never lost. 
Remember, Lucy. Never forget.

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