I already knew I wasn’t ‘right’ that first day I walked through the gates of Lanark Grammar, the below knee skirt my mum had bought for me at the start of the summer holidays nowmid thigh after a huge summer growth spurt. The boy’s shoes with the compasses in the soles, the shirt and tie and blazer, respite from the tights and skirt that trapped me in an illusion of femininity. A crowd of older girls were waiting to tease the new girls. As I walked awkwardly by a chorus of laughs greeted me. These were girls with breasts and ‘hair dos’ and eye shadow and all manner of signals that said ‘female’. I knew that this was not who I would be, or wanted to be.
I hated wearing skirts. I hated being a girl. I didn’t want to be a boy, but I didn’t want to be a girl either. Not if it meant playing with Barbies and wearing skirts and those ‘weird shoes’ that looked like ballet pumps. Or worse, heels. And not if it meant not climbing trees and playing football and getting dirty and building giant papier maché landscapes for my collection of Airfix WWII tanks and jeeps. I watched old movies on TV and struggled later to work out what it meant that I wanted to be Cary Grant kissing Sophia Loren. I hated being a girl, so why was I so drawn to her, the most womanly woman I could imagine? Shouldn’t I like Cary Grant more? And why though I hated everything girly did I feel such an affinity with Ma Walton, and dream of having lots of children? Nothing made sense. There was no one like me in my life, no one who could help me answer the question ‘what am I?’
A few days later the answer appeared. A beautiful, astonishing, breath taking senior walked by us in the corridor. I could hardly breathe. ‘Is that a boy or a girl?’ other 1st years speculated. No one seemed to know. I suppose I must have been vaguely aware that the speculation was aggressive, not supportive, at least I knew I shouldn’t show my interest. And I knew something else, for despite the speculation I knew right away she was she, she was me, I was her. I had a role model.
I found out that she was called Horse and was known for being musical. I decided to try and get near her by joining the music club, and so my short lived career as a bongo player was born. I still think of her when I hear bongos and though I don’t recall how often my bongo bashing achieved its aim of closeness I do remember it was enough times to fuel my obsession. Times when I would sit in the music room, or the school hall when she was performing on stage, my throat burning for lack of oxygen as I held my breath in awe. In those moments my mind would race trying to take in everything about how she dressed, moved, wore her hair. I would hang around at the school gates at the end of the day hoping to see her. One day I very nervously followed her, I’m not sure with what intention other than simply to be near someone who made me feel less alone. She walked by the hotel we lived in and I almost burst with excitement to think that she had been so close to my home. For days afterwards I would gaze out of my bedroom window down to the street where she had been, conjuring her up in my head.
In the summer holidays I began to nag my parents to let me cut my hair (like hers, I didn’t say to them). I told them I wanted to go the barber on the High Street, and somehow eventually they relented and let me. I look back now in astonishment that they did, that I did. That painfully shy girl took herself off alone to the barber, sat in a chair waiting her turn, endured the suspicion of the barber when she told him to just cut it short. As I sat on that unfamiliar and exotic barbers chair, worn leather arms gripped tightly in fear and anticipation, I took in the smells of aftershave and balms so different from the hairdresser. I loved how stark it all was; no pink, no frills. I loved the look of the razors and shaving brushes arranged on the shelf. My eye caught in the mirror the scantily clad woman on a calendar behind me. The barber looked uncomfortable as he realised what I was looking at and shoved my head down roughly. As I watched the tresses fall away I felt for the first time the power of being in charge of my own identity.
We left Lanark in my second year. I couldn’t tell anyone why it broke my heart, though by then I had found another girl my own age who seemed familiar too. Even if I had told them they wouldn’t have understood why was I so sad to be leaving someone who didn’t know I existed. Wouldn’t understand that knowing she was in the world gave me a sense of being a ‘something’ I hadn’t had till them. I didn’t have any words for the something yet, and it would be many years before I would become comfortable, would find an identity that was my own. But for those couple of years when she and I shared a school, despite the fact that I am sure we never exchanged even a word, I had a sense of being with, of community, I wouldn’t find again until my early 20s.
Years later I would hear her name again, and with a shock realise that the singer on TV was her. My role model. The person who helped me feel a little less alone in a world I knew even then was going to struggle to let me be me. And years again before I would find tears in my eyes reading her account of those times – of how alone and bullied she was. A wash of shame as I realised that it never occurred to me back then that she was suffering. I suppose that’s the thing about role models – we use them for our own ends and rarely think of their experiences. Back then she seemed supremely confident and powerful. I knew people talked about her but somehow never really thought about how she felt. I was so desperate to know that I was not alone and that it all might be ok after all I blocked out any notion that it was not ok for her.
She was in the back of my mind when some friends and I decided to open a gay café in Edinburgh – the Blue Moon – in the late 80s. We’d all been involved in gay activism, fighting Clause 28, running demos and dreaming of a world that wouldn’t find the need to spit on us in the street or deny us a place in the everyday. The idea of creating a space where people could see each other, could find each other, was an idea not to be let slip. I’d watch them come in, clutching their distinctive paper bags from Wilde and West bookshop, nervously sitting alone, watching intently everything and everyone around them,as I had watched her. The alone finding their home. There amongst the outrageously out, the quietly out, the not very out, they would find their way out too. It was the first gay café in Edinburgh, at a time when finding each other was still always hard and often dangerous. Maybe it was the Ma Walton in me, but I loved seeing them slowly find themselves. The day they would first talk to one of us, or appear one day with a friend on their arm. It makes me a little sad to think that all these years after the Blue Moon we still need role models, still need those places of sanctuary. Sad, but grateful that they are still there. Sad, but reminded of how precious they are.
And Horse – well, she’s still being a role model, still being musical, still helping people understand that a world in which so many feel that they have to be careful about being themselves is not ok, and not inevitable.