Silver Fox in a Frock
Words by Sandy Cambell - www.silverfoxinafrock.com
I am Trans, and this is the story of my journey. Last year, at the age of 60 I came out. As anyone who has come out will know, it's not an overnight event. It is a process that is still going on, but as I write my story I realise it has actually been unfolding all of my life.
Since early childhood I have known gender confusion, but thanks to the courage of the younger generation, I am confused no more. I feel blessed to be alive at this point in history - when the presence and acceptance of trans people has finally burst through. I am now at peace with the complexity of my male-ness. But it is my male-ness. It is trans.
I have many badges - a member of the SNP since the age of 10, a life long Hibs supporter, a proud and active Leither, an occasional painter, a dog lover - or rather a lover of one particular dog; my own Tia. I am best known as the founder of a Scottish youth employment charity - WorkingRite. I am pleased with my greying goaty beard. I wear waistcoats and a trilby hat…. and sometimes I wear a frock. Now all my badges are coming together. A single flag where each badge has its pride of place and makes up a private, public and colourful whole.
I am choosing to be quite public about being trans. Partly because the version of Trans that I am, stands out. There is no blending in option for me. When last summer a smiling woman in Brighton greeted me with the words - "A silver fox in a frock. I love it"' I realised there and then that I was going to attract attention.
I have always had a bit of a showman side to me. Call it egotism if you like. I'll hold my hands up to that. But it's more than that. Attitudes to Trans-ness are changing rapidly, but it can't all be left to the young. I am a great believer in the power of role models. So it is for this reason that I feel I have a certain duty to be public about my own journey. Over the years I have met many unhappy people struggling with their gender identity. I just hope that my path will provide some with a glimpse of another way of achieving peace and an integration of who they truly are. As Oscar Wilde said - "Be yourself. Everyone else is taken."
Most of my life I've accepted the description of 'transvestite' as the best label going. I never felt truly comfortable with the term, or rather I knew it wasn't the full explanation as to who I am. There are some new descriptions out there now - gender fluid, gender queer, trans gender, gender non-binary. The closest for me is perhaps gender queer. If I were to invent one for me, it would be Trans Fluid. But in some ways the whole point in this explosion of understanding of Trans people, is that there are both multiple labels, and none that will ever suffice to explain our differences. Boy, how the world has changed.
As a boy I didn't think that I should have been born a girl, even though my curiosity and dressing started very early - about 9 or 10. But the signs of some kind of mixed gender identity were much earlier than that really. I remember myself at two. I have the cutest photo of me with a girls summer straw hat on. I remember my mum telling me that I would steal the dolls from the girls' prams as we passed each other in the streets of late 50’s Edinburgh. But I also remember needing soft textures to touch. I loved dressing up. I wore a kilt for a whole year at the age of 9, and I was always the ‘Red Indian’ in boyhood games (very un-PC these days I know) and dressed up accordingly. Cowboys had no appeal.
"Since early childhood I have known gender confusion, but thanks to the courage of the younger generation, I am confused no more. I feel blessed to be alive at this point in history - when the presence and acceptance of trans people has finally burst through. I am now at peace with the complexity of my male-ness. But it is my male-ness. It is trans."
As an only child I remember being curious about my mums earlier miscarriage and whether I might have had an elder sister, and I remember wondering what they would have called me if I had been a girl. My mum said they always knew I would be a boy and hadn't settled on a girls name. Susan and Jane being the only contenders apparently. The fact that my mother supposedly 'knew' I was going to be a boy, stuck. If Trans sexuality was ever going to be the easy explanation, it didn't fit with the narrative of myself I was building up.
Then on an evening in November 1969, watching the telly with my parents, Monty Python sang their Lumberjack song for the first time. In that moment this 13 year old boy now knew that there was a word for him - transvestite - and it was to be laughed at. I remember reading every dictionary definition I could find in my desperation to find out more. I remember the fear in my belly as I went to school the next day. All the boys were singing it and laughing. Who were they laughing at? Could they tell?
That was the moment when I realised I had to make a choice. I could stay with the path I'd started that summer on holiday with my mum and dad in London, or I could join the rest of the boys and fit in.
It had been just a few months earlier in the summer of 1969. Carnaby street, Hyde Park Corner, flares and beads - on the young men. I returned to Edinburgh with a shiny black pvc coat, mustard coloured flares, Beetle boots, a bright yellow cravat, and a leather revolutionary cap emblazoned with a Mao-tse-Tung badge. I remember going to Glasgow with my mum that Autumn. She was attending a conference and I had the chance to explore Glasgow. Somehow I found myself joining a procession of men - Celtic fans. They were off to a game (a semi final against Dundee I remember) and I joined them walking along, in all my gear. They were friendly and jokey, and then one of them said to the man giving me most attention - "you know that's a boy don't you". The man's eyes ran me up and down and then he leapt back as if he'd been altered to a bomb. I drifted away from them and found myself very alone in this suddenly scary crowd. Scotland of the late sixties, let alone this young 13 year old boy, wasn't quite ready for this.
I knew what bullying was like. The only kids in the street where I grew up were three or four years older. When I was about three they stripped me naked and threw me out onto the street. In my panic I tried to run home, but went the wrong way, and was quickly lost and afraid. I didn’t want that again, and as puberty kicked in all around me In my early teens I saw a future of either daily humiliation and beatings, or run with the gang - so speak.
It was soon the early 70’s. In Edinburgh the Bay City Rollers had hit the big time. My mum sewed tartan onto my Levi jacket (albeit under protest). I bought my first Ben Sherman shirt, went to Hibs games, discovered girls, and turned my need to express my difference outwards towards activism, and what were for me, the important issues of the day: fighting for Scottish independence, protesting against the Vietnam war, and battling to reform the strict rules of our school uniform. (A battle that I won by the way).
Then out of nowhere, when I was 16, Ziggy Stardust burst into my life. Males could be publicly different after all. Edinburgh wasn’t Brixton back then, but nevertheless I sometimes wonder - what would my life have been like if I’d followed David Bowie’s example instead? But I didn’t, and was even a bit ashamed of my secret connection to Bowie. I chose to stick with the fitting-in path I'd chosen and I survived my teens, in a country where homosexuality, and therefore any acceptance of sexual difference, would still illegal until I was 35.
At 17 I left school and home to seek work in England - and to escape the claustrophobic grip of my mum. Sheffield became my home for the next 25 years. The framework of my public identity was established by then; at least on the surface.
"Finally it feels good to be me; all of me."
Sheffield was good to me though. I still have lots of friend there. In my new English home I continued to be publicly 'active'. A trade union shop steward, a spell in the Communist Party, and in the 80's, endless protests against the Thatcher government. Then gradually in the 90’s, my political activism turned to what we now call ‘social entrepreneurialism’. Ultimately, on my return to Scotland, that drive found its fullest and most satisfying expression, in the creation of my charity that helps young people into work - Working Rite. My proudest achievement.
But one's sexuality cannot remain repressed for ever. I told my first human being when I was 24; my girlfriend at the time. She was good about it but assumed that it meant I was gay (if only). Then I told my two best male fiends at the time. They were shocked but accepting. I learned the meaning of friendship that day. Over the years since, all my friends have leaned about this other side of me, but its expression remained private - except for the occasional visits to transvestite events in Sheffield, Manchester, and even more occasionally, London.
I turned to therapy in my 30’s with mixed results. I was searching for an explanation and, if the truth be told, a cure. In the main I am a supporter of therapy and how it can help us to make sense of our past difficulties and traumas. But I also see people getting stuck in their past; locked in blaming their parents for all their inability to live their lives. I have a particular beef with the 'person centred' approach with its principle of 'unconditional positive regard', which I think can leave people swimming in their stuck-ness for years and years with only victimhood for company. Or at the other extreme Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. A short sharp sticking plaster that keeps the NHS budgets under control. Both have their successes of course, but not for me, and I suspect many other trans people. My trans-ness is not a pathology, an addiction or a destructive bad habit ; neither was it my mum's 'fault'. Only in my late 50's did I find the robust and interactive therapy that helped. More than 'helped'; it was the kind of support that made this breakthrough possible. A more psycho-analytical approach coupled with the right person - (thank you Judith).
But trans-ness is difficult for people to understand, including therapists. Most of my male friends of my own age still find it difficult to make sense of. My female friends are much more accepting, finding it fun and even exciting. Maybe it's their surprise and even relief in seeing a man of my age ripping up the straight jacket of men's narrow and strict clothes rules - where the only window of tolerated expression is a colourful tie or a jazzy pair of socks.
I sometimes fantasise about a future where the photo shoots of world leaders are not a sea of blue suits peppered by the occasional burst of colour from the Nicola Sturgeons or Theresa Mays of the future. Imagine if the gossip columnists cast their mean judgements on Francois Hollande's choice of nail varnish or that Vladimir Putin's leather skirt was just that bit too short for the occasion. And I'll leave it to your own imaginations for the frock that Donald Trump might pull out of his wardrobe.
But I digress. I will leave my ideas for how men's clothes could be liberated (and therefore how the judgemental spotlight can be taken off women and their looks) to future blogs.
This is not my first attempt at coming out. In my mid 30's I wondered if I could find release and expression through my life long passion for art. So I reduced my hours at work and embarked on a part-time fine art degree at Sheffield Hallam art college. Again I will leave how their post-modernist fundamentalism nearly destroyed my love of painting to another day. But in my wrestling with their dogma I drew on a skill I had learned by then: how to use what you oppose to your own advantage. So I put my paint brushes to one side and laid on an interactive final degree show that required all visitors to change their footwear - yes into stilettos, from a feast of choice ranging from size 3 to size 12. Inside the stone floored room a recording of police horses hooves on the Sheffield streets looped continuously. Clip-pity clop echoed round the room with the combined heels and hooves. 'What does it really feel like to be shod?' I posed in true post-modernist style. The visitors were invited to view a display of me transitioning from beard and pretty full body hair, to a smooth androgynous form. On the evening of the opening, I was of course clad in all my glory - a sixties style black and white vertically halved dress symbolising my two sides, and an auburn bob of a wig.
On my return to Edinburgh in 1998 I continued in the same vein, winning third prize at a Miss Alternative Edinburgh competition hosted by Nicolas Parsons. But where could I go from here? There was this a problem I could not resolve - my beard. Transitioning, (which feels now like a transvestite word) was only possible by becoming clean shaven. But I liked my goaty beard, and still do, and enjoy how it looks combined with what some call my rather ‘dapper’ mens clothes. It felt like the only way to be out, (meaning in fellow human company dressed), was to shave off my beard - and I hated losing it. So then followed a long period of repression and keeping my dressing indoors. Instead I threw my energies into my activism again. Back in Scotland once more, I stood once for the SNP - and lost, got fully involved in my new community of Leith, its festival and other community activities, and threw my my heart and soul into starting my charity.
"I sometimes fantasise about a future where the photo shoots of world leaders are not a sea of blue suits peppered by the occasional burst of colour from the Nicola Sturgeons or Theresa Mays of the future. Imagine if the gossip columnists cast their mean judgements on Francois Hollande's choice of nail varnish or that Vladimir Putin's leather skirt was just that bit too short for the occasion. And I'll leave it to your own imaginations for the frock that Donald Trump might pull out of his wardrobe."
Life has a funny way of unfolding the right time for changes to happen. Looking back, if I had come out as a clean shaven transvestite in my early 40’s, it would have been another case of me squeezing myself into a different, albeit tempting, peer group. But it would have been someone else’s group; not mine. Something in me knew this was not my true path.
Looking back, I can see it was how it was meant to be. If I had squeezed myself into that traditional transvestite shape in my early 40's then I wouldn't have started my charity. If I hadn’t stayed with my memory of my adolescent struggles, I doubt I would have felt the passion to create a charity that sticks up for late teenagers as they wrestle with the changes unfolding in themselves at such a pace. And I do believe that what I have started does matter and is making a difference. Together, all of us in our small charity, support each very different young young person through their transition into their own individual adulthood - shaking off the limiting and often terrifying need to fit in to the tight disciplines of their peer group. To help give them a new individuality and self-assuredness in the adult world of work, rather than the echo chambers of classroom environments and campus politics. And so strangely, I have no regrets about leaving it so late in life to make this statement about my true self. In so many ways, now is just the right time for me.
But back to the beard. I've never been one to accept convenient solutions to difficult challenges when they don't feel absolutely right. And the thing that has bothered me throughout this journey has been the 'passing' thing that occupies many transvestites. Close up in daylight I knew I could never pass as a woman. I don't want to try and fool anyone. I want to be me. Not only do I know I'm a man, there are many aspects of my male-ness that I like. I am privileged to have many close male friends who I can open up to, and who are open to me. I love their company and have experienced the best of male friendships over the years. In my latter years I have also formed some wonderful female friendships too, and yes, sometimes, I do feel a bit like one of the girls. But I know I never will be fully.
So with the support of my last, and very positive experience of therapy these last three years, I set out on the quest for the holy grail of integrating my different parts into one. At first I couldn't see any way of achieving it. The beard was one seemingly insurmountable obstacle. But there was also my professional position. As the leader of a charity I had responsibilities. The thought of myself as a bearded tranny approaching pension age brought back all my fears of childhood bullying and humiliation, let alone the potential humiliation of the charity and how it might affect our young people.
But the times they are a changing - and fast. Bit by bit trans seemed to be everywhere. For years there had only been Eddie Izzard, who has been, and still is, a major hero of mine (despite his views on Scottish independence). He too seemed to like his goaty beard. But he is show-biz; I am a leader of a charity. A different world, or so I thought. Then events started to unfold from all directions, and with each small step I experienced such kindness and encouragement along the way.
I had often fantasised that our national 'skirt' could provide a key. The paintings of one of our national heroes, Bonnie Prince Charlie, look so trans as if they were designed to be a parody of the macho Scottish male stereotype. The Scottish regiments in full Highland dress with their feathers and furs are a site to behold. As decorative as they are, they are still unquestionably male. Then in the summer of 2015 I plucked up the courage to cross the threshold of a small dressmakers shop in Edinburgh I had been eyeing up for some months. There I met Holly, the proprietor of Totty Rocks - the dressmaker for Nicola Sturgeon. "Are you up for a challenge?" I said. Over the next weeks we co-designed an Alexander McQueen style feminised kilt look with a difference. Since then I have experimented with different looks, different wigs, and sometimes no wig - but the beard proudly remains.
Meeting Jordan Gray (the Trans winner of The Voice) at an LGBT event I was mysteriously invited to last July, followed by a summer holiday in Brighton with the morale support of one of my special female friends, built up my confidence and courage. Yet still now, when dressed in my own personalised style I actually feel quite young, emotionally. I think it's because I am actually picking up where I left off at age 13. Perhaps I am rediscovering the world with the body of a pensioner and the feelings of an adolescent.
But I am growing up fast. By coming out to all by colleagues at work I had the best Christmas staff night out ever - in a special Christmas outfit! And now I prepare for the next big step. My first public speaking engagement as the new Trans me in London, proudly made possible by my special friend, Lauren, at her #UpFront celebration of diversity on Thursday night. Finally it feels good to be me; all of me.
If you liked the story above, we think you will also like these related stories from our In—Common library.
Dad Making Me
One of the things we want to do at The Age of No Retirement (more)
My story — how I got my confidence back.
Helen Walmsley-Johnson had plenty of confidence as a child but where did it go (more)