By Amanda J.
Reading the reprint of Stephanie Julianna’s wonderful account of her encounter with ‘Female Mimics’ magazine (I’m Not Alone – 8 July 2022) reminded me of my own early attempts to discover all I could about the transgender world, not that it was referred to as that in those days. And whilst her words did resonate with me, I couldn’t help seeing the contrast between our situations. Stephanie’s account was one of a wonderful voyage of discovery which inspired her to blossom herself. As you read mine, you’ll probably come to much the same conclusion that I did – it just reeks of desperation! Nowadays, of course, unlimited information is just a click or two away but back in the 1970s, opportunities just had to be grabbed when they arose. Insights into the trans community were sparse to say the least in those days but perhaps that’s why, looking back now, finding even the smallest of morsels felt like I’d struck gold.
It was in the mid 1970s when I first became aware that I may not have been exactly like the other boys of my age. Memories from childhood are usually hazy but, for some reason, these particular recollections are vivid, even more than four decades later. But before I start my deep dive into the nitty gritty, I would like to stress that I’m no longer quite as shallow as my teenage self was (although any of you already acquainted with my love of stilettos & eyeliner and generally tarting myself up would probably beg to differ on that particular point).
I guess my first encounter with the idea that guys could become girls was when my mother told a friend and me about a book she’d read by someone who’d had a ‘sex change’ (as it was referred to in those days) – ‘Conundrum’ by Jan Morris.
Prior to that, the local ‘drag artiste’ would crop up in conversation at home from time to time (my uncle knew him personally as I recall) but the discussion would usually end with a withering ‘there must be something wrong with any man who wants to dress as a woman’ from my mother. Now, though, my mother’s attitude had done a complete U-turn and in her eyes the subject of the aforementioned book was to be admired for what she had overcome to live life as a female. I was immediately fascinated by the idea that men could become women and really wanted to see what Jan looked like. Sadly, my mother had already returned the book to the library by the time she told us about it so that was my next port of call.
Disappointingly, when I located the aforementioned book, Jan’s style was perhaps best described as middle aged housewife; teenage me dreamed of looking like girls my age but, luckily, all was not lost! I’d also become aware of April Ashley and, while I was in the library, I found ‘April Ashley’s Odyssey’. I didn’t bother reading much of it but went straight to the photos towards the centre which appeared to be a ‘Who’s Who’ of the stars of the trans scene at that time. Amanda Lear, Coccinelle and April herself to name but three. All surgically enhanced and all drop dead gorgeous. This was more like it and the interest of teenage me was well and truly piqued.
Around the same time, a film that had been released a few years earlier was shown on the TV for the first time, albeit in a late-night slot due to the nature of its content. In those days in the UK, we only had three television channels (a 50% increase from a few years earlier and now in colour too!) and so going through the listings in the newspaper was a quick & easy daily ritual. But what was this – ‘Dr Jekyll & Sister Hyde’? That sounded interesting and even more so when I read the brief synopsis which promised that a scientist would turn into a ‘fetching but sinister female’. I’d never seen the word ‘fetching’ before but a scientist drinking a potion and turning into a female was good enough for me so I negotiated a late bedtime (how did we manage without videos or TV on demand in those days?) and eagerly awaited the big reveal. Of course I knew that Dr. Jekyll was played by Ralph Bates and Sister Hyde by Martine Beswick so it was all make believe but, even so, it didn’t disappoint – when the big change happened, it was cleverly done and completely believable, at least to a teenager for whom anything of this ilk was the most amazing thing ever!
And from time to time, more titbits would crop up. An interview with Renee Richards on the TV news after her match against Billie Jean King. An article about the ‘Dog Day Afternoon’ bank holdup in the magazine that came with the Sunday papers which included a photo of Elizabeth Eden whose surgery the robbery was intended to finance. Finding ‘The Book of Lists’ in a local bookshop which included a list of ‘transsexuals’ with an accompanying before and after photos of Deborah Hartin. From time to time, Danny la Rue would appear on TV, perhaps a bit too camp and over the top for my interests but I do remember him starring as a spy in a TV special where, unsurprisingly, he disguised himself as a woman to go undercover and, with a more mainstream look than his usual sparkly gowns and feather boas, he looked pretty good. And so on.
But what I never imagined was that I’d soon be watching one of the most beautiful women I’d ever seen on TV and not realise she was trans. In the late 70s, a new Saturday night game show appeared on UK television called 3-2-1. It had the usual formula of jovial comedian host in the form of Ted Rogers and six beautiful hostesses – at least there were six beautiful hostesses in the first week but only five from the second week onwards. It was to be another couple of years before I found out the reason that one had disappeared so abruptly between the first and second weeks.
As the decade drew to a close, I went to university in London, over 200 miles from home and with that came freedom and money in my pocket (no student loans and tuition fees then, degrees were free and the government gave you a subsistence grant!). I’ve always been fond of browsing bookshops and, as I went into one, ahead of me was a book with an absolutely stunning woman on the cover. The title of the book was ‘I am a woman’. I’m still at a loss to understand why I picked it up but perhaps it was my ‘sixth sense’ wondering why a woman that beautiful needed to give her autobiography a title that was blindingly obvious to anyone who saw it. Turning it over to read the blurb on the back offered a tantalising explanation for that particular puzzle.
It was, of course, the autobiography of Tula – Caroline Cossey – and the short synopsis told me all I needed to know. She was born male! Within minutes, I was the proud owner of a copy and, needless to say, I went straight to the photos in the centre and there, in amongst them, was one of Caroline plus five other girls – the hostesses on 3-2-1! And, reading the book revealed more. She had been the sixth hostess but, unfortunately, ‘outed’ by the gutter press after the first programme and been forced to withdraw. It all seems so unacceptable now but, unfortunately, stories of ‘sex swop beauties’ sold newspapers in those days (and for a long time afterwards) and the editors didn’t care about the lives they trashed in the process.
But I digress. With the exception of the fictional Dr Jekyll who moved forwards and backwards across the gender divide at will (at least until it all went wrong with the potion and things became rather more random as I recall) and Danny la Rue, all of the enchanting ladies that I had encountered had bought a one-way ticket to womanhood. Fascinating though that whole idea was, deep down I realised that it wasn’t really me. I’d just been dabbling with my mother’s clothes from time to time which really wasn’t the same thing, much though I sometimes wished that it was.
As a newly arrived outsider in London, I’d heard that Soho was home to some of the more, shall we say, grown up establishments in the capital and so it was only a matter of time before I’d feel the temptation to see for myself. It didn’t seem to be anything special, well not in the hours of daylight while I was there anyway, but as I was leaving the area and walking down Frith Street, I came across a shop called ‘Swish Publications’. Luckily, in those days, that sort of establishment didn’t have to keep their stock hidden from public view and, in the window were a selection of their publications including several which proclaimed that they had something to do with the ‘World of Transvestism’. I walked slowly past the shop several times to take a sneaky look but didn’t have the guts to go in. Well, not that day anyway.
A few days later, I was back there and, with a deep breath, I entered the shop and made a beeline for the racks where the aforementioned titles were displayed. I had a look through several but, to my dismay, these were not publications showcasing the likes of Caroline Cossey, April Ashley et al. In fact, it’s quite hard to articulate quite how bad the content was so let’s just say that most of the ‘models’ within the pages were in no way either respectful or representative of the vast majority of those in the community we now participate in. Anyway, having looked through several, I found one issue that was just about acceptable featuring, as I recall, a photo spread of an attractive blonde girl and having parted company with the best part of £10, my purchase was placed into a plain brown bag by the bored looking male assistant for the journey home.
However, there was a problem. While in the shop, I had unfortunately come to the attention of a smartly dressed man who, perhaps seeing the ‘potential’ in me that would take me another 4 decades to bring to fruition (I’m deluded as well as shallow by the way), approached me as I emerged.
‘You and I have a common interest’, he declared
‘Oh no we don’t’ I quickly replied before hurrying off to the nearest tube station, hoping that he had taken no for an answer (which, luckily, he had).
When I was finally in the safety of my student bedroom, I eagerly removed my purchase from the safety of its bag and started reading. Whilst, in relative terms, it was probably one of the better issues they’d produced (when compared to the others I’d flicked through in the shop), in absolute terms it was still pretty ropey! Although the aforementioned blonde girl was undoubtedly a credit to the community, most of the rest of the publication definitely wasn’t. Particularly noteworthy was the letters page where readers would send in photos of themselves wearing one or more items of female apparel (but with little or no effort made to appear in any way demure or feminine) with an accompanying letter. All of the letters seemed to begin ‘Dear Brian and the girls. As I write to you, I’m wearing….’ and, in all honesty, seeing whatever it was they were wearing on the photos was bad enough without reading a graphic description of it too!
And so ‘World of Transvestism’ soon became the subject of my first purge. The first of quite a few purges but notable as being the only one which was entirely justified and never regretted!
If only that had been the end of it. All thoughts of crossing the gender divide consigned, like Brian and the girls, to a convenient waste bin on the street. Life would have been so much simpler. But of course it wasn’t the end. It was only the beginning and Jan, April, Caroline and even Danny la Rue & Sister Hyde (but definitely not Brian and the girls) had conspired to awaken the woman within and so began a 40 year battle between my two sides.
And that battle only ended a year or two ago when I finally got the message that in any fight with a woman, inner or otherwise, the woman always wins!