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  • Writer's pictureMarcas Mac an Tuairneir

Iona McGregor

Dùn Bhlàthain

In the late Eighties the all-too vocal majority has decreed that gay people shall once more be driven underground. Clause 28/29 is the first step in this direction. The main result of 'shielding' young people from the real facts about lesbians and gay men will be to infect them with homophobia; but I believe there is more to the campaign than cashing-in on public ignorance of the difference between homosexuality and pederasty. It is an attempt to make the gay community undermine itself by returning to the furtive guilt-ridden state that preceded the Stonewall riots.

However, I believe that the right-wing backlash will not succeed in its second aim at least. This perhaps foolish optimism is based on the enormous change in attitudes towards gayness over the past forty years. Not those of the straight world: there I think we must reconcile ourselves to permanent mockery, hostility or - at the best - embarrassed toleration. I am referring to our own attitudes. Our strongest weapon is that we are convinced of our right to an open existence. We have become visible to ourselves. Those of us who are old enough to have lived through these changes should be mildly hopeful.

By the age of seven I knew there was something skewed about my view of the world. Exactly what I was, I could not work out. I was a mystified onlooker as my contemporaries tumbled into crushes on authority figures of their own sex, and then later began to squabble over the attentions of young men. What was I missing? How could my friends see any charm in aged hags of thirty who could no longer run and jump, or in those croaky-voiced youths covered in spots?

Until my teens I sought out the company of boys, because like them I scorned games with dolls and other female interests. The head teacher of the primary school I attended in Dunblane told my mother that I refused to stay in the girls' playground at breaktimes and was constantly playing marbles with the boys. Did she want this stopped? My mother returned a cryptic 'No'/

I was allowed to grow up as a thorough tomboy, acquiring imitation guns, lead soldiers, a Meccano set and a lethal knife which inflicted a bone-deep scar on my forefinger. Its broken blade still comes in handy for opening tins of paint.

When I look at photos of myself at this age I am rather puzzled. The face is recognisably mine in shape and features, but the expression is wary and diffident. not at all what one would expect from the active, outdoor child I undoubtedly was. The expression becomes progressively more self-conscious as I go into my teens; and not all of it can be put down to adolescent awkwardness before a camera. A textbook example of identity crisis, perhaps?

I grew up in an army family, the almost all-male pre-war army. Before some bizarre tropical memories, this imprinted on my mind a rigid division between male and female roles, even more strongly perhaps than if I had experienced a more conventional childhood. Each sex had its fixed behaviour pattern, and never the twain should meet. Women worked until they married, and then their life centred entirely on the home.

My revolt against these stereotypes took the form of passionately wishing that I had been born a boy. I don't remember when this longing began; probably with my first awareness that human beings were divided into two species and that one was more important than the other. I'm also uncertain whether I identified with the male role because I genuinely found its activities more interesting, or vice-versa.

Eventually I was able to start pestering my parents to do something about the mistake in my gender. We were visited by a doctor who years before had lodged with my grandmother in St Andrews as a medical student. I was about nine years old at the time. The doctor had been practising in South Africa, and was by our standards very wealthy,. He was amused by my refusal to behave like a little girl, and made a joke about medical operations and transexuality. (This was very daring for the late Thirties.) I seized on this information; for a time I became obsessed by the idea of changing my sex. I knew exactly what anatomical alterations were necessary. The little boys I played with were already indulging in macho stag games, comparing equipment and seeing who could pee the farthest from the tops of trees.

Freud would have labelled my behaviour penis envy. Of course it was nothing of the sort. It was role envy, brought on by the inequalities that lay ahead of me. And I am quite definitely not transsexual. My fantasises disappeared with puberty, although I greatly resented the changes it brought to my appearance and physical functions. I still considered the male role more desirable; but even this preference disappeared like snow off a dyke - so to speak - as soon as I encountered the women's liberation movement. There i found the ideas and concepts to explain those anomalies of my childhood. I began with Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex and have not looked back since. But my change in outlook was not to come about for nearly twenty years.

When I think back about the doctor's visit, I am amazed that my parents said nothing to neutralise his remarks to me [...] I can't remember ever being checked or punished for trying to behave like a boy. My parents made no pointed comparisons with my two younger sisters, who played with dolls and miniature cooking scales. In fact, everything odd or unusual about my behaviour met with a wall of silence. Looking back, I see that my parents preferred not to confront the issue. To the end of their lives they would never let me draw them into my personal problems; their blocking-out was so effective that it was impossible to use he wods 'lesbian' or 'homosexual' in front of them.

In later life I was able to bring lovers to my parents' home. They were treated politely, but as friends. My mother became very attached to the woman with whom I formed my most important relationship, and kept in touch with her long after the two of us had separated. She never openly acknowledged the relationship; yet when we stayed overnight, the two single beds of the room in which we slept had always been drawn together and made up as one. As we left, my mother would kiss A. goodbye; when it came to my turn, she would sharply avert her face to make sure that my kiss landed only on her cheek.

Excerpt from Visibility Eighties Rising from And Thus I Will Freely Sing: An Anthology of Gay and Lesbian Writing from Scotland.

Polygon, 1989

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