Thursday, March 10, 2005

When My Best Mate Became A Woman

I have just returned from the Scillies (more on this later); I am still in Cornwall; tomorrow I go to Legoland in Denmark to visit the 'children of the SS' (more on this, later, too). As such there isn't much time to blog anything revolutionary. So I thought I'd tell you a snippet of good news instead.

I have just sold my memoirs of my lovelife, in proposal form, to Bloomsbury Books in London (cue mass applause). The book is called Millions of Women are Waiting to Meet You. The title is ironic.

The money they are paying me is not bad, but I shan't be buying a yacht just yet. Nor a car.

I'm glad I'm with Bloomsbury Books, they are a great publisher - and of course they do Harry Potter, which makes them high profile. It must be a huge relief for them to have me on board, a guaranteed seller, someone able to make up for all their JKRowling losses.

Anyway, yes. Today I thought I'd blog, on top of this good news, a related bit of writing. It's a sample chapter from the book. Well, actually, it's a Guardian piece I wrote sometime back, about my close friend who announced he was a transsexual. The article will be updated a little to slot into the book, but it won't change that much. Why stress myself?

When My Best Mate Became A Woman

I am sitting in a riverside pub in west London when my old friend Joe turns to me and says: "I want to be a woman." I have been expecting this. A mutual friend has forewarned me that Joe has very recently come out as a transvestite, indeed a transsexual. But it is still a shock to hear it from Joe himself. This is because he is one of the blokeiest blokes imaginable.

If five phrases could be said to sum up my college mate, they would be: Stella Artois, snooker, test cricket, Star Wars and Nottingham Forest FC. The word "transsexual" would not, hitherto, have figured in that list. And now here's my old chum Joe, old sports-mad Joe, telling me about his rather petite dress size (10).

"It's very expensive being a transvestite," he tells me. "You have to maintain two wardrobes."

"Er, right."

"And wigs are really expensive. And bras don't come ch -"

"Fancy a drink?"

My head is spinning; I retreat to the bar and order a beer. Then I order a gin and tonic for Joe: he has switched from pints of lager to "girlier" drinks. This is one of the things I am going to have to get used to. There are other things I am going to have to get used to. One day in the future Joe will start coming to the pub in skirts and blouses. That will be a big change. At some other point in the future (once his hormone pills have kicked in), he will start to grow breasts. This seems to me an interesting scenario. It throws up the possibility that Joe might become the most ideal of girlfriends: someone able to talk knowledgeably and amusingly about
soccer and cricket and old Arnold Schwarzenegger movies, but with breasts and hips to boot.

But then I wonder if Joe will remain able to think like a man. Will his sex-change also feminize his personality, his attitudes, his spirit, and thus endanger my male friendship with him? To put it more bluntly, will he stop wanting to talk about football, and start wanting to chat about star signs?

Back to the here and now. I have more pressing questions. When I take our drinks back to the pub table, I ask Joe to spell out when and where he first became a transsexual.

It turns out that he has been aware he was different from a remarkably early age. When he was five or so, he heard a news story about a famous transsexual called April Ashley, and despite Joe's tender years he was immediately aware that something in April's experience chimed with his own outlook. This feeling grew stronger through infancy and adolescence: Joe remembers, as a boy, looking at girls with a yearning that wasn't sexual. He had an ache to be like girls, rather than with girls.

"I didn't really have a puberty," says Joe. "I don't think I went through what most boys go through. I never had a desire for... penetration."

Growing up as he did in a mainstream Midlands environment, he found it difficult to confess his secret to "normal" people around him, even - or perhaps especially - riends and family. But the necessity for subterfuge didn't put Joe off his quest for the accoutrements of girlhood. At the vulnerable age of 14, he used to go into women's clothes shops and ask to try on dresses.

To me this seems incredible, and also incredibly brave. As Joe goes on I start to feel the first inklings of real admiration for what he is doing, and respect for what he has been through. What can it have been like, to be a 14-year-old boy trying on ra-ra skirts in the Nottingham branch of Top Shop?

For a long time the salesgirls of the east Midlands were the only people who knew his secret. Even when he came south, to the alleged sophistication of London, and London University, he felt unable to reveal his true self. Even to close male pals like me.

"I was scared you would all reject me," he tells me. "You were all so laddish. But now..." He pauses and looks me in the eye. "Now I believe I was wrong to doubt my mates. You wouldn't have rejected me... right?" I concur, vigorously. Our group of friends wouldn't have rejected Joe, mainly because most of us were semi-feral lay abouts ourselves. How could we have rejected him for simply being as oddball as the rest of us?

I put this point to Joe. He looks wistful. "You know," he remarks, "I could have come out long before."

But he didn't. For years he maintained a double life. "You have to be a good liar to be a secret transvestite," as he puts it. That said, there were moments when the facade of normality nearly slipped. He took risks. One time, when he was living with a couple we both know, he experimented with wearing the girlfriend's ball-gowns whenever the couple were out. That could have been a bit peculiar if they had come back early. Another time when we were all sharing a flat, by absurd coincidence an old school friend of mine, who was staying over, rang a transsexual chat line out of curiosity. Then the phone bill arrived and we all saw the chat line number itemized, and we all rounded on Joe and, jokingly, accused him of being the phonier, and therefore a transsexual. This was a big joke precisely because he was so obviously not a transsexual. Or so we believed.

"I was trembling inside," Joe recalls. "I thought you'd all rumbled me. It was awful."

No one did rumble him. Though, looking back, I do wonder whether we should have suspected something, given his lack of obvious girlfriends. But he used to convince us that he had had romantic flings, even though he hadn't, so he successfully maintained the facade of laddish normality in that respect as well.

Now we are on this subject of sex, I am keen to resolve a puzzling aspect of all this. I'm curious to know if Joe is actually homosexual. He says not. He informs me he is, rather, a "lesbian trapped in a man's body". Apparently Joe's tastes run more to a kind of sisterly intimacy.

The end of Joe's story, as he relates it, is poignant. A few years back he revealed his secret to a close female friend, whose warm understanding persuaded him to extend his psychosexual horizons. He moved up north for a couple of years and started to visit transvestite clubs in Manchester. At this point things were going well, he was taking things at his own pace; then came the sudden blow that forced him to open up to everyone.

Joe was living in a shared flat in Liverpool. The flat was burgled by some local tearaways and his wardrobe was rifled, spilling dresses, skirts and "special interest" mags all over the floor. This meant the local kids knew his secret, and they weren't about to let him get away with it. "My life wouldn't have been worth living in that street," he says. "I had to get out that same night, move back to London. But I had to tell my flat mates why I was fleeing. And once I'd told them I thought I might as well tell you all.And so here we are."

Indeed, here we are. I feel like giving Joe a hug, but I am not sure what that would say about our relationship. So instead I slap him on the back. Then I say my goodbyes, and step out into the riverine air of Putney. I take deep breaths. I'm a little stunned.

That remarkable pub meeting was in the autumn of 1999. It is now high summer, nearly three years later, and it is the Covent Garden launch of my second novel. A lot of significant stuff has happened in that time, to me as much as Joe, but this night is particularly special for the both of us. He is going to be coming to the party as a woman. It will be the first time I've seen him in his full kit, in the outside world.

That's not to say Joe hasn't become more womanly (quite apart from his clothing) in the intervening years. He has. In the past 30 months of hormone pills and elocution lessons, as he slowly builds up to possible sex-swap surgery, he has physically and mentally changed. He has longer fingernails. Less stubble. A different, less assertive walk. He has also changed somewhat in sensibility. In these years he has become a little gentler, more sensitive; in turn I am less abrasive with him, more solicitous of his feminine feelings.

ut it another way: although our conversations are no deeper - or more candid - than they used to be, they do have a different dynamic. Within our relationship, we have slightly different personae. For example, Joe feels more able to be vulnerable: the other day he wept when talking about his dying mother. I am not sure he'd have felt the freedom to do that before. Equally, when he cried, I was able to be more understanding of him, in a mildly tender way.

And yes, Joe is also developing breasts. Just recently I went out drinking with him and a friend, Pete. Pete took one look at the budding A-cups under Joe's unisex jumper, and reported that his own 15-year-old daughter's breasts weren't growing as fast as Joe's.

Yet for all these changes, I haven't seen Joe as a proper woman in the real world. Until now.

Feeling the tension, I pace the floor. Then eventually the door opens and Joe comes in. He is wearing a blue dress and a blonde wig. It is a sight I am conditioned to find comical, and so I do.

But after a while I stop giggling, and I look at Joe more studiedly, and I begin to find the sight of him as a woman rather inspiring. Almost noble. What he is doing really takes guts. And heart. And courage. Good for him.

Taking up my wine glass I go up to him. He stands there, with an unsure expression. "You know," I say. "You look OK... not bad at all."

In his blue dress, Joe smiles, and sighs with relief. Then we start talking
about football.

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