Monday, February 18, 2008

Man in the Mirror

When I could first walk and talk I think my family became confused as to whether they had had a son after all. I had no interest in anything related to girls. Not only did I dress like a boy I wanted to be one. It was fun being a boy, you got to wear trousers, climb trees and get messy. Boy’s could pretend to drive Knight-Rider Kit car and wear A-Team pyjamas. More importantly they were not expected to enjoy ballet, play with Barbie and get excited about My Little Pony’s and Care Bears. From an early age Mum gave up trying to put me in dresses; it really was not worth the tantrums and instead of Ballet classes I was enlisted in the local swimming club.

During childhood the urge to actually be male passed but unfortunately the downside of liking David Hasselhoff’s car, having short hair, climbing trees and always sporting grazed knees I was still mistaken for a boy and often referred to by strangers as 'son'. This gender confusion was exacerbated by the fact I looked just like my father but thankfully without the beard and bald head.

I met my best friend Sam when we were eight. We were cast as two gentlemen in a serious period drama school production, somehow related to the teacher’s strikes that were prevalent during the early eighties. We dressed in top hat and tails and unknowingly narrated profound political statements to the parents and school governors. Our mutual love of the spotlights, applause and standing ovations meant we clicked straight away. OK we were on a tiny wooden platform for about ten minutes, forgot our lines and sang atrociously. The following year we were once again under the bright lights as male, ragga-muffin factory children in another politically highbrow production. We had not improved so this was the end of our short lived acting career.

Sam was not overly girly, she was just cool. She started to advise me about fashion, music and how to put makeup on. She taught me the ‘Time Warp' and the infamous 'side stepping around the hand bag' dance whilst listening to Whitney Houston in the privacy of our bedrooms. When Mum encouraged me to buy ‘unusual, different, good fun’ clothes my best friend thankfully discouraged the purchases. Following one disastrous shopping trip Sam couldn’t hide her amusement and blatantly laughed when I turned up wearing Joseph’s Technicolor dream coat. I appreciated the honesty as this prevented a much greater humiliation at school. Saying that, Sam did turn up at a party wearing white stiletto’s, so maybe I should not have been so trusting of her taste!

I grew my hair, hopped down from the trees, stopped fighting and became more aware of my looks. To embrace my new found womanly appearance at ten years old I was taken for my first salon professional hair cut. It was quickly established that years of swimming had left my blonde locks so badly chlorine damage there was only one option. Off came the very fashionable basin haircut leaving nothing more than an inch of hair. Staring back at me from the mirror was a round faced, chubby, younger version of my father that was practically bald!

Growing up, changing becoming conscious of appearance you really do not want to hear how much you look like a man especially if that man is quite stern faced and has the opposite temperament to yourself. Dad still tells dry jokes with a dead pan expression and when he smiles he looks slightly uncomfortable and a little unnatural. My Mum on the other hand is a cross between Mary Poppins and Maria; she even looks like Julie Andrews. She has a beautiful, warm, caring persona that men love, and if she wasn’t so nice, women would be jealous of. Of course, and with no jealously in my tone, my sister looks just like her!

As the years progressed my taste changed from liking Hasselhoff’s car to his Bay Watch lifeguards. Sam and I pinched alcohol from the parent’s cabinet, got hooked on Twin Peaks, cried watching Beaches and talked about boys, OK I talked about Laura Palmer! I became confident in my abilities, personality and lifestyle but still I could never quite get rid of the negative feelings that I looked masculine and like my father.

To this day I sometimes see my reflection and feel uncomfortable in my appearance. I could use clich├ęs such as it’s the person inside that counts or beauty is in the eye of the beholder but that is not helping me, so now I need advice. What I would like to know is how does someone change a perception of themselves decades later? How does one become so comfortable in their skin they feel beautiful without becoming arrogant? I would hate to wake up at sixty, look in the mirror and see a good looking woman who was always there, smiling back and not having appreciated her.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

A Funny Place

Cyndi Lauper’s ‘time after time’ plays through the Ipod, as I sit on the train dreamily staring out the window reflecting on life and watching London pass by. If I perm my hair, put on gold bangles and aluminous fingerless gloves, to onlookers I could be confused with a star of any soft focussed, melancholy, eighties pop video. It is unusual for me to dwell on the past and even more unusual to hear me listen to ballads, so why now, when life is good and the sun is shining, do I feel incredibly sad?

Staring out the carriage window, my sense of humour abandoned on the platform, I know I am in a funny place and it is time to sort myself out. Accompanied by my small resurrected ‘Greensleeves’ playing violin, this is the moment I have to delve uncomfortably into my past to understand when and why did I become emotionally impenetrable?

I have always considered myself very lucky. I was brought up in a nice environment by a loving family and have never felt the need to complain. From an early age when the shit hit the fan, I brushed myself off, looked on the bright side and optimistically carried on. With a great deal of will power, I locked all negatives thoughts and feelings safely away and what I believed was a positive, healthy approach towards life has resulted in the opposite effect. Something has slowly eaten away inside and I have been on a self destruct mission for about, um… twenty years.

As previously mentioned en route to LalaLand, I experienced numerous deaths as a child. Quick recap, it began with my Grandma at twelve and ended the day before my fifteenth birthday with my Granddad. During this period, Aunty Pat, the eternal spinster, met a man. He was intelligent, kind and a real gentleman who smoked sixty a day. Aunty Pat’s harsh personality mellowed as they fell in love. She genuinely smiled, laughed, empathised with others and listened. A year later he had a heart attack and died instantly. Aunty Pat brushed herself off, got on with life and officially closed the doors. After I experienced death number ten, I think I did the same.

Looking back I realise how little of that period I remember and I have recently discovered my perception of these years is very different to the reality. If you ever asked me did I like high school the answer would be a definite no. I thought I was unassuming, shy and a bit of an outcast. The reality is I was popular, funny and well liked, as my best friend likes to remind me. She knows the fun we had, so why can’t I remember? I think the fact I started to drink, smoke and rebel could have something to do with my lack of clarity.

I did get back on track and successfully finished school before spending the next few years stoned, drinking, clubbing, travelling and enjoying every minute. Relationships were not on my agenda, and really what was the point? I would not live to a ripe old age, people I loved died and god forbid anyone could be truly happy with a significant other. Death was an acceptable and unavoidable part of life so I might as well live day by day and really experience what the world has to offer. It will be no surprise that in my second year of university, Dad in his forties, was diagnosed with having a terminal illness and my reaction was one of normality. As we have watched him slowly but steadily degenerate it has been OK because this is what happens in life.

I know now why I don’t remember much about high school; it was not the rebellion it was because I was too young to cope with the amount of loss. I was not ready to grow up that quickly and until today I have shied away from dealing with anything serious when it involves my own life. If shown genuine concern about my welfare I tend to choke, stutter, tell a joke and run away; unless of course, large quantities of vodka have been involved during the opening up process.

So that is my inner sadness and where it originated. Twenty years later I am learning to admit my grief and finally let it out. It’s not been a pretty sight and I do find it hard to say I am struggling but the amazing eye opener is friends still love me, still support me and don’t shy away from this unusual sight; me crying. Of course life is full of ups and downs and now the sadness is dealt with I can focus on ending my self destruct mission and look forward. Stepping off the train I turn off Cyndi, pick up my sense of humour and feel lighter than I ever have before. For the first time I am excited about my future and the thought of sharing the open, loving and honest me with someone. But more importantly I feel so very relieved I did not alight at LalaLand!

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Natural History

When asked by my friends to meet them in the Natural History Museum, I jumped at the chance. I love spending time with them and my two year old Goddaughter. I can bear navigating my way around the hundreds of tourists and squealing children to see the look of excitement on her face in the dinosaur exhibitions. When I say I have a Goddaughter, do not worry, I provide absolutely no religious guidance. It is my job to entertain her with stories, change the odd nappy and watch ‘In the night garden’. I am learning quickly and am now an expert at badly singing the Makka Pakka song, dancing Igglepiggle disco moves and making Pontipine burping noises. Do not even get me started on the Tombliboos, I’m sure they’re part of a government conspiracy to brainwash the next generation into liking Ken Livingstone's stealth taxes!

The following day I am marched against my will to the monthly lesbian mothers and children group. After an Oscar winning guilt trip I was told I would have fun when I got there and they’d really appreciate a couple of hour’s free time. It was easier getting a two year old ready than pulling me kicking and screaming down the road, begging ‘please let me take her to the park, I can cope with that’. I put up a good fight and hung onto the door frame for dear life before being outnumbered and dragged into a social club full of children, organic flapjacks and happy couples.

After several explanations of 'no she’s not mine', 'no, my partner is not here' and 'yes, maybe one day I’d like children', they rubbed salt in my wounds by introducing the guest speaker who was there to talk about civil partnerships. As the children quietly sat occupied with crayons, couples sat in a circle dreamily looking on in pride at their family as I munched flap jacks and clock watched. Mid serious discussion about lesbian law, my Goddaughter decided to play the game I taught her earlier that day and ran into the middle of the circle, growling and pretending to be a man eating dinosaur. Following a cat and mouse chase around the circle I scooped her up and we hurriedly left, fully aware I had just made Britney Spears’ parenting skills look good! As we ran for the park I was not sure whether the traumatic experience left me feeling depressed or optimistic of one day having a family of my own.

Several years ago I had a conversation with a woman who believed by ‘choosing’ to be gay you have lost the right to have children. Slightly taken aback by her attitude I calmly explained I did not choose this way of life or choose to make motherhood difficult. From an early age, I envisaged having a family; there was just no man in the picture only Jodie Foster – how did the whole world, including myself, not know I was gay? Anyway, we discussed society’s reaction to same-sex parenting and the moral dilemma of buying sperm or borrowing it off a friend. Our debate did lead me to question, is it fair to bring a child into the world fatherless, with the likelihood of being bullied and are same sex parents, plain and simply, acting selfishly?

My naivety towards parenting led me to ask friends and colleagues about their thoughts on having children. Stories flooded back about the minefield of emotions experienced with having children. Tearing hair out one moment, as they kick and scream to joy and laughter as they tell you their first knock-knock joke. The sadness as they head off for their first day of school and the pride when they pass their first spelling test. What struck me was the absolute, almost overwhelming love and responsibility friends were experiencing. The understanding that they would never be top of the agenda again and murder would be acceptable if anyone hurt their child.

That aside, there is one thing I do know and that is children are fantastic lady magnets! My trip to the park involved a long conversation with an attractive female by the swings and a lot of smiles and ‘arrhs’ from strangers as we fed the ducks. This got me thinking, do you think my friends will let me take their daughter to Soho? I could sit in a coffee shop, god-daughter on my knee smiling as I ooze an air of calm and control with a side helping of sensitivity and love. When approached I can subtly announce ‘She’s not mine’ followed dreamily by ‘I’m single, I just like spending time with her and it helps her parents out’.

Ok, now for the reality; me, a distressed screaming child and vomit in my hair. I’ve forgotten her food, water and milk. Her nappy needs changing but I can not manoeuvre the pram through the coffee shop and I am so scared she will hurt herself in my care that chatting to ladies is the last thing on my mind. I am contemplating buying a bargain bag of cotton wool and all I want to do is get her home, safe and sound.

On return from the park and thankfully no coffee shop dramatics, I see a man approaching with a baby swaddled to his chest. As he nears I smile in support of parents to realise he has a can of special brew in one hand and a cigarette in the other. I have previously questioned is it selfish for same sex couples to have a child? I can safely say, that at that moment seeing a another poor child about to be dragged up, I realise that to bring a child up loved, safe, without judgement is important and it is irrelevant if it is by two mums.

As my Goddaughter grows up strong, self assured and happy; the bullies won’t bother and society will begin to accept. Every child in the social club was lucky to have two adoring parents and I believe every woman has the right to have a child regardless of sexuality.