(The Guardian) Juliet Jacques was born a boy, but always knew that something wasn’t quite right. In the first of a series of columns charting her gender reassignment process, she describes how she gradually came to terms with her true identity
I decided my name should be Juliet when I was 10. It took a further 17 years to let it rise from the back of my mind, where I had swiftly buried it, and become my identity. Don’t ask my “real” name: it’s not polite.
Changing my name was easy – a deed poll costs about £30. Changing my body is far harder. In Britain, there are two gender reassignment routes: expensive (private) or slow (NHS). Having declined the terms by which I could raise £30,000 for private treatment, I’ve chosen slow – which some people feel shouldn’t exist. Without it, though, I’d face a lifetime in a body I loathe, being asked to meet social expectations which feel alien to me, creating mental health problems that would require (state-funded) treatment for years, even decades.
Beginning the gender reassignment process is the next, admittedly huge, stage in managing my lifelong gender dysphoria. Fulfilling the classical transsexual narrative – the one that gender clinics like to hear – I knew I was “different” as a child. My first indication of how came at primary school, when a friend said: “We’ve got to make you more masculine.”
Why? I didn’t consider myself predominantly masculine or feminine: I liked violent toys (particularly Transformers – the irony had not yet become apparent) AND fluffy kittens. I hadn’t realised the fundamental role gender plays in most children’s development: how it provides both a group to belong to and something to define themselves against, and a base for all future personal development. And all this before most are old enough to question why girls should do X and boys should do Y (or, more often, in both cases, not do).
Unlike most of my contemporaries, I had reason to question gender stereotypes. Aged 10, I saw two men cross-dressing on television (I’d love to say it was these two, but it wasn’t), and I felt an irresistible urge to copy them.
Putting on a dress, I was floored by a surge of energy. Momentarily, I felt completely at ease: then total confusion. Why was I turned on? Was I a “transvestite”? Did I want a “sex change”? Then fear: what if my family caught me? What if my classmates found out? Nobody must ever know, I told myself, cross-dressing behind closed curtains, panicking when my parents’ car pulled up the drive before I’d covered my tracks.
Publicly, I struggled to present a convincing masculine persona. First, I became misogynistic, resenting the girls at school who I imagined had an easy, fun relationship between their gender identities and their bodies (little did I realise, aged 13, how utterly absurd that was). Soon, I learned to respect women: I turned my rage on myself, and my inability to feel comfortable in my body, let alone fit in with my peers.
I never joined my classmates when they waxed fantastical about who was “fit”. I didn’t dare admit, even to myself, that I enjoyed cross-dressing and found transgender people attractive (not that I knew the word “transgender” then). I channelled my frustration into football (which became my main concession to masculinity) and fronting a punk band.
Isolated, I scoured the mainstream media for like-minded individuals, but it seemed the closest people to me in the public eye were objects of ridicule: Lily Savage or Pauline Calf. I knew I wasn’t a drag queen, or a transvestite, but I didn’t know what I was.
I refused to admit how drawn I was whenever I saw the word “transsexual” – usually in my parents’ Daily Mail. Their coverage tended towards stories about greedy transsexuals milking the state or their employers, usually accompanied by cartoons of burly men in floral dresses with stubbly legs (little has changed – note the pronouns).
Then I discovered Eddie Izzard, who hilariously normalised cross-dressing, and The Smiths, with their sublime glorification of the outsider. I felt less alone – but I still knew nobody like me in suburban Surrey.
The internet was a godsend: at last, I found men who dressed as, or had become, women. Finally, I accepted myself. Moving to college, I was ready to come out – but as what?
I declared myself gay and a cross-dresser: “gay” because although I felt attracted to males who were somehow female, I still considered them men; and “cross-dresser” because it seemed the most innocuous term. I picked a male image off the post-punk peg – spiky hair, raincoat, DM boots and Joy Division T-shirts – and started cross-dressing with female friends, periodically scandalising the people of Horsham (it wasn’t difficult) by wearing makeup and women’s clothes around town. Mostly, though, I kept my femaleness private: I didn’t want my gender to become sensational (at least, not all the time), and presenting as male seemed the easiest option.
After two idyllic years, I went to university in Manchester. Now, the city has a vivid transgender scene – including Sparkle, Britain’s only national transgender celebration – but I arrived too early. In turn-of-the-millennium Manchester, as elsewhere, trans culture was struggling to achieve visibility within, let alone a distinct identity from, the gay scene made famous by Queer As Folk.
I soon realised that men-only clubs weren’t for me, gravitating towards Manhattan’s, with its cross-dressing barmaids and bizarre opening times, and the Hollywood Showbar. Both featured drag acts, but I rarely saw transgender people there: when I did, they were a small number, often huddled in a corner, nearly always at least 20 years older than me. I created my own spaces, cross-dressing at club nights I organised: I felt accepted by my friends, but lonely, still knowing no trans people.
In Brighton one summer, I went out as Juliet for the first time, aged 20. A friend took me to Harlequins, where trans people were made especially welcome (its toilets were designated ‘Gents’ and ‘Ladies/TV/TS’). Its music and decor resembled the campest gay clubs – there were drag acts followed by a hyper-cheese disco. Although I hated the playlist (OK, apart from the numerous guilty pleasures), I loved the atmosphere, and the liberation it provided: I’d never felt so myself.
After graduating, I took a postgraduate course at the University of Sussex. Feeling more comfortable, I became more open about my ‘cross-dressing’, but I was only just discovering the deliberately vague, all-encompassing transgender identity theorised in the 90s by Leslie Feinberg, Kate Bornstein and others – all cornerstones of Sussex’s Gender Studies MA programme (which I neglected in favour of Literature and Visual Culture).
Feeling more at home in Brighton, I finally acted on my belief that I was a gay man. I had two brief relationships with men, both of which foundered on their sexual disinclination towards my irrepressible femininity. I realised that the reason I didn’t fit into the gay scene was because I was not a gay man. Instead, I finally admitted to myself that I must fit somewhere on the daunting, ill-defined CD/TV/TS spectrum. But where?