LGBT History Month: A Space That Offered Safety

The importance of LGBTIQ+ safe spaces in Scotland's towns and cities is highlighted in this blog post about intangible heritage by playwright and performer Jo Clifford.

Submitted by on 01-03-2016 15:46:12

A Space That Offered Safety

My first thought was that there was nowhere.

No public space anywhere where it was safe to be transgendered.

So I immediately concluded I had nothing to say.

But that's how it's so often been for us: excluded. Hidden. Silenced.

And it's sad how often we collaborate in the process ourselves.

What kept me sane was the fact that when I went off to work as a writer I almost always managed to find myself a room where I could be safe and alone and wear women's clothes. And that when I was out and about I would still be wearing women's clothes, only of an androgynous kind that meant I didn't have to pass.

And looking after my children helped so much, too, because I could imagine that as a woman's activity.

And writing my plays, too, because they meant that in my imagination I could live out the female self I somehow, impossibly, always knew was mine.

And when I met other trans people we always met each other in response to small ads in furtive magazines.


I soon discovered that quite often all we had in common was that we liked wearing women's clothes, and that wasn't really much of a basis for friendship. Especially because our tastes so often differed, Which I discovered when they so often wanted me to wear suspenders and high heels.

The routine was always the same: turning up with my femme clothes in a sports bag. Changing, putting on make-up, an hour or so of stilted conversation, and then changing out of it all again.

Until somehow I found real friends. One worked as a trans prostitute from her flat in the centre of town and I so enjoyed going to see her. She advertised her services in the small ads of the Sunday Sport, and I would fit my visits in between clients. We connected with each other and it was in her bathroom that I first got my make-up right and I looked in the mirror and recognised and liked the woman I saw.

And then there was Jean. Like me, Jean taught in a university; but in a ferociously male oriented subject that was one of the reasons she found it so hard to come out.

She loved fishing, and would organise parties where we would all share her catch. They were open to everyone, trans and cis and queer and straight because she wanted her house to be a space where everyone could meet and feel safe together.

By then I'd found a cis woman friend who let me change in her house, and arm in arm we'd walk along the streets to Jean's house and these were the first times I'd found the courage to walk out under the public gaze.

These were so important, these early steps to escape the fear and the shame that paralyzed me, and I wanted Jean to share them too.

But she couldn't. She kept moving house because she got paranoid about the views of her neighbours and when we met in the gaps between the trout parties I would turn up in my androgynous clothes and she would turn up in what she called the male drag of the university lecturer and we would talk and talk in the dark vaults of a basement wine bar on Edinburgh's West End.

And when I started on hormones, and was really making progress with removing my facial hair, and bit by bit becoming more and more open in my exploration the person I actually am, it saddened me that we began to drift apart.

I think it hurt her to see me taking the steps that somehow she couldn't take herself. She started to change her mobile number without telling me, and withdrew more and more into isolation.

When we'd met we'd always drunk an improbable quantity of red wine and now the drink took over and eventually the police broke down her door to find her dead in her flat.

And then she was buried under her male name.

So when it comes to commemorating this pioneer, there's nowhere to put the blue plaque. She moved house too often. And it's no use going to her grave: the wrong name's on the headstone.

But I remember Jean. I remember her support and her help and her kindness.

And that I will never forget.

Jo Clifford is a playwright and performer who lives in Edinburgh. She is the author of about 80 plays, many of which have been performed all over the world, including 'Losing Venice', 'Every One', and 'The Tree of Knowledge'. Her 'Great Expectations' makes her the first openly transgendered  woman playwright to have had a play on in London's West End. She is currently co-writing a new play for the National Theatre of Scotland, which she will perform late in 2016.
She is a proud father and grandmother. More info & her blog on and @jocliffordplays

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