Playwright and performer Jo Clifford was born in Stoke-on-Trent in the early 1950s, studied Spanish and Arabic at university, and earned a PhD in the dramatic works of Calderón. She was named and brought up as a boy, but knew from a very early age this was not right for her. It was only after years of making a life and raising a family in Scotland that she could act on her lifelong struggle. Here she describes the long journey towards becoming herself.
All I knew when I was a child was that the frightened bewildered boy I saw in the mirror was not me. I really doubted that perception because I could make absolutely no sense of it and did everything I could to deny it.
I was born in the nineteen fifties, and it’s hard to imagine how different life was then. There was no mention of trans issues anywhere. Even words like ‘transgender’ did not exist. So neither my parents nor myself had any means of any kind of understanding my experience. All I knew to do was to try to keep it secret and live as if it didn’t exist.
But that got harder and harder as I started to want to play with girls’ toys, wanted to play and be with girls (I didn’t really like being with boys) and then was sent to all-boy boarding schools. I had three brothers who were much older than me and no sisters. And then my mother died when I was 12 years old. So I grew up desperately in need of the company of women and girls.
I started to be given women’s roles in school plays and it was then I found my vocation for the theatre. I also understood how much I loved dressing as a girl. How much that made me feel happy and at ease with myself. But that discovery also deepened my shame and my fear and my intense distress. I felt that inside me I carried this terrible secret that was so terrible that if anyone knew I would die of shame.
I tried to reconcile myself to the thought that I would always be alone.
When I was seventeen I began living in Scotland. I was working as a volunteer in a mental hospital in the Borders and met a psychiatrist who lent me a book called Childhood and Society, which mentioned the existence of Two Spirit people among the native American peoples. And for the very first time I understood that I was not alone in the world. That there had been, and perhaps even still were, societies that accepted the existence of people like me and even honoured us and gave us a place in the world.
That saved my life. That, and the fact that by then I knew I was a writer. That was something that allowed me to live in the imagination and gave a focus and an ambition and a meaning to my existence.
My vocation had been blocked by the shame I felt as an adolescent, and I spent twenty years trying to be a novelist. Which I absolutely am not. It wasn’t till 1985 that I found my voice as a playwright; and I only rediscovered my vocation as a performer another twenty years after that.
And I fell in love. My partner, Sue Innes, was a writer too and we stayed together for 33 years until her untimely death from a brain tumour in 2005. She was the very first person I came out to. When we had our children we were resolved to share childcare. We literally divided the week in half, and each took one half for childcare and one half for work.
And that meant I was our daughters’ father and mother and I loved that. And I wore women’s clothes when I wrote and I became the female characters in my plays and the world around was opening up too. But if you asked me at that time whether I was a man, I would have said no; and I knew I wasn’t a woman either, because I was living as a man, and that increasingly distressed me.
On my fiftieth birthday I came out to my friends as ‘bi-gendered’. I felt it important as a man to recognise and celebrate the woman who was also inside me. I stopped buying and wearing men’s clothes, though without trying to present myself as a woman. Soon afterwards I started to have breakdowns. I began to feel with agonising intensity that I was ‘in the wrong body’. Luckily, a gender specialist had begun working in the NHS in Edinburgh, and I was able to see her and begin the long process towards living as a woman.
Soon after this process began, Sue developed the symptoms of the illness that was to kill her. The horrible thing about living in a transphobic society is that it affects not just yourself but also those you love. Sue suffered as I did, and it is a sadness that she died before the issue could be fully resolved.
Once she had gone, living as a man became absolutely impossible. I was full of fear and the deepest grief; but began to present myself to the world as a woman.
Scotland in 2005 was not a welcoming place. My journeys down the street were zig zag affairs as I kept crossing the road to avoid dangerous situations – queues at bus stops, groups of teenage boys or girls, men smoking resentfully outside pubs. People would laugh in my face or shout insults or talk about me as if I wasn’t there. I remember once in Glasgow two women stopping dead when they saw me and one saying ‘O my god that’s a man!’ as if I was the most disgusting thing she had ever seen.
I kept writing. I kept taking the hormones. I tried to recover from open heart surgery. I saw the two psychiatrists that I needed to see to get permission to have gender reassignment surgery.
I had assumed at that time I needed to go through this surgery, which involves the surgical removal of all male genitalia and the creation of a vagina. It’s a massively invasive operation that can have unpleasant side effects and when confronted with the reality of it I realised I didn’t need to put myself through it.
All I needed was an end to the hormone warfare between the female hormones I was taking and the male hormones my body was producing. So I opted for a simple procedure called an orchidectomy and was recovered in a week.
Somehow, miraculously, that stopped the abuse.
I was a bit too preoccupied to notice this at the time, however, because I was performing a show I had written that imagines Jesus coming back to earth as a trans woman. This opened in Glasgow in 2009 to demonstrations in the street outside the theatre, and a torrent of denunciations from the tabloid press and from people all over the world.
The press mocked me as a ‘sex swap playwright’. But I have never swapped sex. I have never even changed my gender. All that has happened over all the years is that I have gradually begun to accept who I am and then live this openly.
Our world only accepts the existence of ‘men’ or of ‘women’ and since I cannot live as a man I have to live as a woman. But who am I? When I was given the award of being one of the ‘Ten Outstanding Women in Scotland of 2017’ by the Saltire Society, many angry feminists wrote to tell me in the most insulting terms that I am a man. I know I am not a man, but whether I am ‘truly a woman’ absolutely does not concern me. I live as a woman, and it completely suits me. I feel comfortable in my skin.
At the time of writing this, in the spring of 2018, I have just spent the last fortnight rehearsing and performing in an art installation in the Tramway as part of the Glasgow International Art Festival. ‘Dark Continent: Semiramis’ was created by Tai Shani and I was one of the twelve women inhabiting her creation, which is a representation of the City of Women first conceived by Cristine de Pizan in the fourteenth century.
And of course I belonged there. In the post-patriarchal world that is slowly and painfully and convulsively being born. And that we women are creating together.
Scotland: Her Story£12.99