Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Creating liturgy for an inclusive world

There’s a wee Chinese boy on the bus, who’s not been talking long from the look of him, who’s saying

“Twinkle twinkle little star”

Over and over again.

“How I wonder what you are...”

He’s taking such pleasure in the rhymes and rhythms of it

“Up above the world so high...”

As my daughters did when they were small, as my grandson is doing now as he explores all the different kinds of sounds he can make

“Like a diamond in the sky.”

As we all did, once...

Because creativity with language is part of the wider amazing and wonderful gift of creativity that belongs to all of us as our birthright.

And that gift being distorted and blocked is a huge collective source of suffering.

It breaks my heart the way language above all is so misused in our world. 

The way it is habitually used as a means to humiliate and dominate and deceive and manipulate.

Sometimes I wonder what would happen if I began a writing workshop with asking all its members to remember and to tell of the times their creativity had been used as a means to mock them or humiliate or hurt them.

I sense we’d be still listening the next day: because all of us have suffered that way.

Which means that up to a point it’s very simple to run a writing workshop: you just have to create the conditions which allow this innate creativity to emerge.

My church ( St Columba’s in Oxford ( and the City URC in Cardiff ( all have significant numbers of LGBTI members in their congregations and asked me to lead a writing workshop to enable them to create the kinds of prayers and services and liturgies we need.

So they hired a beautiful venue, the Windermere Centre ( and there we all were. Feeling apprehensive. Or at least I was.

The theory is quite simple: you have to create a sense of community. A sense of a safe space in which everyone is able to be themselves.

Then you devise a way of helping the participants evade the inner censor that will be blocking them creatively. And then you encourage them to work on the results.

It takes a certain level of energy and focus; and, as here, a fabulous group of open hearted and courageous participants.

There’s always a moment when everyone hits their fear and distress. It happened very strongly that first night; partly, I suspect, because the Christian tradition has always been to encourage its members’ sense of unworthiness and shame.  

And, sad to report, it’s done so largely to bolster up the church’s authority.

All that has to change; and is changing, in these astonishing forward looking churches. 

Maybe that’s why we got through.

What’s for sure is that when we came to share what had been created at the end of the evening, the results were beautiful. They created a palpable sense of the sacred.

The task the next day was to encourage everyone to let go of their own work. Hand it over to someone else so we could help each other.

It’s a scary moment, this. It leaves you feeling naked. There was such a palpable resistance to it; some people physically did not want to let go of what they’d written.

But it all ha to be faced, somehow. Faced and cried over. Or laughed over.

And we did. 

And the result of all that astonished me: a whole other set of beautiful new work.

That is now being enjoyed all over again as we send it to each other and slowly assemble it as a future publication and online resource.

Something is happening. The dear star is shining.

Change is in the air....

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Monday, November 25, 2013

When it comes to equal marriage, not all churches are the same...

I remember the first man who loved me. He said I had beautiful hands and he kissed them.

It was a beautiful gestures, but I could not respond because my sexuality had become tangled up in my desire to be a woman; and in my terror and shame I had repressed it.

He was ashamed and frightened too because at that time homosexuality was still illegal; he was a nurse in a young person’s psychiatric unit and afraid that if his homosexuality became public knowledge he would lose his job.

Our relationship was destroyed by our mutual guilt, fear and shame; and its destruction was sanctioned by the law.

It is extraordinary to think that although this happened a long time ago, it still happened in my lifetime.

The man’s name was Mike. Mike Whelan: and I still think of him. I hope he’s happy and well.

I think of him travelling south through Carlisle, which figured in our sad story; and I think of him because in the same week as my journey the Scottish Parliament paved the way for equal marriage.

And did so with a huge majority; and those sad so-called ‘Christian’ opponents who not so long ago could have rested secure in their prejudice and their hatred, feeling that they somehow represented the views of the majority, now find themselves isolated and on the margins.

It all represents a sea change in collective values; something that is not confined to the secular world, with the Christian churches fighting a doomed rearguard action against it.

In fact I’m travelling down because three churches who have significant numbers of LGBTI members in their congregations and understand the importance of this want to create more inclusive prayers and liturgy for their churches; and have asked me to lead a writing workshop to help enable them to write it.

Our culture is focused on technological advance and outward change; but it’s maybe these deep shifts that matter more.

Whatever it is, I’m proud to be part of it; and it fills me with hope.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

For Transgender Day of Remembrance. A requiem for my dear sister Jean

My beautiful daughter reminds me it's Transgender Remembrance Day, and puts up a post in its honour.

There was a time when I was so involved in it; when I was working with Transforming Arts and one of the things we did was devise and perform rituals to celebrate our dead.

I loved that group and was so proud of it and think: perhaps I should bring it back, and try to get involved again...

After briefly attending the demonstration for equal marriage outside the Scottish parliament; and walking past another important demonstration against blacklisting in the building trade; and then going back home to nurse my shockingly sore knees before going off to a Pilates class to try to make them better; and then wondering if it's ever possible to keep up with everything.

And I remember Jean.

We used to go to the same gender specialist. This involved a complicated journey to the obstetric outpatients department of the new Royal Infirmary, way out on the edge of the city, and it always used to scare me.

I always wore a skirt or a dress because I knew that was expected, and I would strain every nerve in those early days to do so.

But Jean could not.

She was overwhelmed in fear and in shame and would go dressed as a man. Feeling utterly wretched with herself. Cursing herself for cowardice.

But her distress was not listened to somehow and and the specialist decreed she "wasn't serious".

And a few years later she was found dead in her flat.

It seemed to me she was as much a victim of intolerance, prejudice and hatred as our murdered sisters and brothers.

And so I wrote this for her. And want to publish it again:


I carry in my mind so many maps of my city.

There’s the A-Z, Google, and bus map, usually, but superimposed on that there’s another. Marked in black.

That’s where those teenagers laughed at me. That’s where I almost got beat up by those drunks. That’s where the man hammered on my taxi door. That’s where that man shouted abuse at me from the pub. That’s where the barman called me “sir” even though he could see I was wearing a dress.

A dull map, and a dreary one.

I prefer the one marked in white: the one with the little points of light on it. That’s where the support group met. That’s where the dance classes were. That’s where Jean held her trout party.

Many of these places feature Jean.

She loved fishing, and held parties with her partner where she could share her catch and be Jean.

And I could be Jo. And Miranda Miranda. And Annabel Annabel. 

And we could meet with her straight friends also.

Those were the first occasions in which I was able to be myself with ordinary people; and they gave me the strength to go out into the street in daylight.

It’s these simple daily acts that at the beginning can be the hardest; and Jean helped me through them.

We’d also meet regularly, her and me, in a series of wine bars, eventually settling on one in the West End which I think she favoured because it had dark alcoves where we could sit together and only with difficulty be seen.

She tended to dress  as the conventionally successful male academic she also was. I would wear the effeminately androgynous style which was as much as I then dared.

And we would talk about the agonies of electrolysis, and of hormone pills. Of the gender specialists we had seen, or were seeing (she had gone private. The NHS specialist she first got herself referred to had dismissed her as “not serious”). Of the vile managements she and I were both working under. Of the betrayals of New Labour.  Of trips to Spain. The painfully few occasions on which she could be Jean. Of the anguish with her family. Of the daughter who did not know her. And was not to be told.

Occasionally she spoke of her dream of us being able to meet in the wine bar, and not in male disguise. Not in “male drag” as she called it. But dressed as herself. Just being Jean.

But poor Jean was never really able to give herself much of a chance. She was too haunted by the fear of being seen by her neighbours. 

We usually got through a bottle of wine, and enjoyed it (though it was lunchtime), but I was naive about these things and was shocked when her distraught partner told me they had split up because Jean had such a problem with drink, and she couldn’t stop her.

I should have known. Jean would occasionally talk of the misery of being brought up male in the west of Scotland. Of how men there solved their problems with drink.

I remember her helping me with my shopping when I was ill, driving me to the supermarket with her breath stinking of alcohol. But the more I came to living as a woman, the less frequent our meetings became.

Up to then, like her, I’d seen it as a frontier it felt impossible to cross. The wire was too high. Too dangerous. Electrified. 

Looking back on that time I don’t know how I managed the crossing. I know she helped me. And I did.  And she did not. Perhaps my happiness was too painful for her to witness.

She withdrew further and further; changed her email and her phone; and finally placed herself out of my reach.

Not long ago I learnt the police had been called in to break down her door.
That she had died alone.

And then was buried under her male name.

It’s the time of year when we remember our transgendered dead. When we read out the names of those of us violently killed just for being who we are.

Her name belongs to that list, I think.

Her name, and who knows how many others killed by loneliness and shame. 

By fear and prejudice.

By the inability to become the people they really are.

I wish I could have helped her. It saddens me I could not give her the help she gave me. And was unable to give herself.

She was so kind to others: so kind to everyone but her own dear suffering self.

I know one day all this will change.

I know that one day, when one of us comes to know who we are, we will be able to openly tell the ones we love.

And they will rejoice.

They will give thanks another being has come into the world with the miraculous richness and diversity and compassion and pride that belong to us as our birthright.

Jean was born too soon for that, and never could live out her full potential either as a woman or a man. Or as an academic, or as a politician, or as a parent. 

Or as a full human being.

But in spite of her suffering she helped so many. She was a step on the way.

She did not live in vain. 

And I want to honour her name.

Jean McIntyre. 

Rest in Peace.

Jo Clifford. 29th October 2010.


In which I become a trans foreperson of a jury. And other strange but commonplace adventures

Last week was so strange. I’ve never had a week like that before...but then I’ve never been on a jury before.

There is so much about the process I had simply never thought about or taken the trouble to understand.

How time consuming it all is, for a start. I’d had to phone on the Sunday night, and then again on the Monday, and then again on the Tuesday.

And then finally being told to turn up again at 12 on the Wednesday.

And then, after waiting around for 40 minutes, being sent away till 2.00.

And this was something else I had never appreciated or understood: that so many more people are called than are actually going to be needed. And that the selection process really is random, with our numbers being picked out of a glass jar.

And so this strangely assorted grop of fifteen individuals who were finally crammed together in a jury room, all of us feeling uncertain and out of our depth, were absolutely the product of chance.

And so was the case we were called on to adjudicate.
And how lucky we were: it was short and it was comparitively easy. We were not exposed to anything especially traumatic; and we did not have to exert ourselves to establish exactly what happened.

It was all there on the CCTV. (Something else I had not appreciated: how detailed CCTV images can be. And how intelligently and skillfully they can be handled).

In all those ways we had an easy time of it. The main thing we were called on to do was use the evidence we were given to interpret what we saw and try to find the most appropriate words to describe it.

But that was difficult enough: language is slippery at the best of times, and the law, in trying to pin it down, imposes definitions on words that makes them different from their normal use.

And these words really mattered: they could have a profound effect on the life of the individual being judged.

And top of that, being called upon to judge a fellow human being is a hideous and a stressful thing.

Something else I had not appreciated: how difficult the work of juries is. How important it is. How, like so much else in our society that really matters, it is generally unrecognised, unappreciated, and unrewarded.

I was reminded again how much I live in a bubble most of the time. I stick to what I know I can do and I stay with social groups I know will not be hostile. 

Simply because my situation is a vulnerable one; and certainly last week I had worries about how it would be for me as a transwoman in this unfamiliar world.  

It made me so much relaxed about the whole situation when I was able to come out, and be open about who I am. And then me being trans didn’t stop me being chosen as the fore-person of the jury.

Which makes me wonder how extreme the hostility must be for so many of us for stealth, concealing our true identities, to seem like a safe and viable option.

And it makes me glad that here in Scotland, at least, we are gaining acceptance. And that the world has changed.

Meantime we had to keep going back into the court room, which seemed frozen in time: always the same avuncular man in the powdered wig, the same tense and self-conscious young women in their legal mannerisms and their gowns, the same bored security guard. The same defendant, staring straight ahead, pale, tense and afraid.

It must have taken us about three hours to decide. It was a difficult and yet oddly hopeful process, trapped as we were in the cramped room in this nightmare building dedicated to slowly grinding its way through so much human malice, stupidity, cruelty and suffering.

I was touched by the way the group of us worked together to try to decide what would be just. Touched by the trouble people were prepared to take to make sure the right thing was done and the right words were used to describe the defendant’s actions and the conclusions we had reached. Touched by the way care was taken to make sure everyone’s voices were heard.

I felt sorry for the man; it seemed to me he had simply been the victim of very bad luck, and been caught up in a situation so way beyond anything he had ever experienced before. And which frightened him profoundly.

And the way he responded may have been wrong; but wrong in a way it was easy to understand, and wrong in a way that almost anyone in the same situation would have done exactly the same.

So, rightly or wrongly, I felt an intense reluctance to convict him on a criminal charge. But also, rightly or wrongly, I was completely overruled.

And so at the end of the day I had to deliver to the judge a verdict I didn’t altogether agree with.

But which at the same time had been part of a collective process. And yet there was comfort in that. In knowing that it had had to be a collective decision: the product of a group working together to reach a decision in which my clemency and other people’s harshness all had a voice.

The judge interpreted our verdict in an intelligent and sensitive way, and it was reflected, somehow, in the sentence. 

I've always been pretty cynical about our justice system. And yet somehow at the end there was a feeling among all of us, me included, that even in so imperfect a system justice had somehow been done.

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Tuesday, November 05, 2013

The psychic assault of human folly

On the way up town for a meeting this morning, I find myself following a link to a website expressing the dangers of a sudden and catastrophic acceleration of the effects of climate change

And later, waiting for the bus on the way home, I’m being sent somewhere else to watch a film on the catastrophic effects of the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear reactors 

On every side the level of misinformation is now so extreme it’s impossible to reach an accurate assessment of the truth of all this.

What is abundantly clear is that the UK government is both promoting nuclear power and promoting fracking in a way that ignores all warnings about the dangers of both and is both negligent and criminal.

And so I suspect that my life, that all our lives, are in danger. And I feel completely helpless.

And then the bus comes.

I get on the bus; a man gets off and as I take my seat I watch him walk into the bus shelter I have just left, unzip his fly, take out his penis and piss. Into the bus shelter. In front of all the passengers on my side of the bus.

As if this was completely normal behaviour.

And then the bus goes. And I find myself reading an account of how “underhanding” has become a recognised pastime for young men at clubs. Where a boy stands behind a girl and tries to put his fingers inside her.

And I wonder if the extreme fear these reports are generating, that these very real possibilities are generating, may be operating at an unaware level of the collective unconscious.

And that the most elementary decencies of social behaviour may be breaking down as a result.

And I think: we need to find mechanisms of defending ourselves against these terrors. Without blinding ourselves to them.

And I go to take refuge in my home. Which isn’t really that much of a refuge.

And feel grateful that at least I can meditate.

Monday, November 04, 2013

The great grandma and the teenage rebel

I stumble across an article about the struggles to prevent female genital mutilation in the paper.

It’s close to my heart because I translated a play about it. BINTOU by Kaffi Kwahulé. A beautiful and angry piece about a young girl, a gang leader in a French slum, whose family decides to mutilate her specifically to try to tame her wild spirit.

The ‘operation’ goes wrong and she bleeds to death.

I loved Bintou and lived through Bintou and felt so angry and sad at her dying.

I live through all this again as I read the article. It’s beginning to alarm me, how often I find myself saying: “I wrote a play about that...”

Have I really written about so much?

No wonder I feel tired. No wonder the cartilage in my knees has worn away, no wonder bone is rubbing painfully against bone. 

It’s all the emotional journeys; the thousands of miles I’ve walked in my imagination. The endless wear and tear of all these surrogate lives.

Not to mention the frustration at all these plays being so thoroughly forgotten.

I do the duty trip to my mother-in-law, wrap her her up in her coat, put her in her wheelchair, and take her on a to the nearby canal. 

I forget the pain in my knees as I witness how it’s with the most intense delight she breathes in the wintry air, revels in the wintry sunshine, and takes pleasure in the memory of the canal holidays we’ve taken together.

And she laughs at the memory of her grandmother, Nannie Mima, in her splendid bath chair with its embroidered velvet cushions and its tassels and how she pushed her around. And how regal she looked, “like Queen Mary” in her utterly splendid hat.

“And I never thought I’d end up being pushed around like that, too”. And she’s laughing again. Jean is 89, and afflicted by multiple chronic life threatening diseases,  and yet I sometimes think her grip on life is stronger than mine and more intense is her delight in its pleasures.

When I get home I look up the script:

                         Bintou Bintou
Small savage flower
growing on cold concrete
of a part of town not even the pigs
dare enter
full of hatred
full of love

Bintou Bintou
Bintou the gang leader
Bintou slum amazon
the town she hated
the school she hated
the law of the father she hated

Bintou Bintou
Bintou only loved three things in the world
she loved her gang
that her aunt called the “Lycaons”
she loved her body
her belly that she could turn in a perfect circle
she loved her knife
the knife Manu gave her
her boyfriend Manu who only saw through Bintou’s eyes
who only heard through Bintou’s ears
who only breathed through Bintou’s lungs

Bintou Bintou
Bintou who was “good for nothing”
as her mother said
Bintou who was “a blasphemer”
as her uncle said
Bintou “the whore”
as her aunt said

But she still had a dream
a dream in which she could handle everything
And for hours on end
And for days on end
She shut
herself away to train
to practise once to practise again
all the steps and the sashays
far far beyond the farthest reach
of weariness and exhaustion

Bintou ended up dancing like a goddess
and her boyfriend
called her Samiagamal

But it’s now the family comes
It’s now the time of the shadow of the woman of the knife
It’s now the time of the big decisions
and Bintou is just thirteen

And I’m suddenly having the strangest fantasy: of adapting these lines so they fit the experience of this remarkable woman who’s spent her life conforming to a repressive christian sect, spent her life being the good girl but who still somehow retains a wild love of living in defiance of encroaching death.

Friday, November 01, 2013

Maw Broon, Queen Jesus, Glasgay! and me

When I got to the Glasgow Tron last night to see The Maw Broon Monologues I found myself half expecting the street to be filled withe same crowd of angry protesters that were there when the first version of the show opened in Glasgay! 2009.

I had joked then they were protesting about the disrespect shown to The Broons: but actually they were protesting about me. 

In their hatred of transwomen they had jumped to the conclusion that a transwoman like myself could only be portraying Jesus in a spirit of mockery and disrespect.

And so hundreds of them turned out with their Virgin and their placards on which they had written inspiring christian messages like this:


& when asked why they were getting so angry about a show they had not seen and about which they knew nothing they said “You don’t need to go near a sewer to know that it stinks” 

& I can boast of having done my bit for christian unity in that devout catholics and evangelical baptists dropped their intensely christian dislike of one another to unite in piously christian hatred of me.

On the Friday of that week, the catholic archbishop of Glasgow, Mario Conti, put out a statement to the effect that it was “hard to think of a greater affront to the Christian faith” than my show.

My show about which he knew nothing; and about which he spoke in terms that it now becomes clear would have been far more applicable to senior members of the catholic church than it ever was to me.

The cast of the Broons show, and especially Terry Neason, were supportive and lovely. But their show started half an hour before mine, and so they would have to leave me, and I would sit on my own in my dressing room and listen to the cheers and the laughter and the applause that greeted them. 

None of which helped me much, somehow, as I tried to cope with my nerves and the knowledge of the immense hatred which I had somehow managed to inspire.

I felt lonely and afraid and wished I could write something as clever and as good-hearted as the Broons show was then and in its new incarnation is again. 

Instead of struggling to write trans theatre, which had hardly been attempted before and probably, as far as I could tell, would never  be attempted again.

Yet when I look back at my GOSPEL ACCORDING TO JESUS QUEEN OF HEAVEN which was the fruit of so many years of internal struggle against self-hatred and shame and which, when she eventually came to light, aroused so much hatred and opposition... when I look back I think maybe it is this play of which I am the proudest.

Proud enough to have written a book, which I know I one day will find the means to publish, proud enough to keep on performing it and which, if I could find the right help, I might even be happy enough to go on performing for the rest of my days.

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