Julie Clarke: “Being a woman better than being a man”

SEVEN-YEAR-OLD Julie Clarke is sitting at a desk in primary school when the little girl next to her tells her she has slim hands, like a girl. Julie looks down at her small fingers on the wood in front of them and is delighted. Except Julie isn’t a girl. She’s a boy.
Julie Clarke underwent transgender surgery in 2006. Picture: Jane BarlowJulie Clarke underwent transgender surgery in 2006. Picture: Jane Barlow
Julie Clarke underwent transgender surgery in 2006. Picture: Jane Barlow

A boy who doesn’t want to play football and conkers, who would rather play peevers and skipping with the girls but who knows that if she does, the bullying will only get worse. Bullying not only from the other children, but also from the teachers and adults in the small community in central Scotland in which she grew up in the 1960s.

So Julie hides the part of her that thinks she should be a girl and as she grows up rushes headlong into a macho life that sees her working in a quarry, becoming a firefighter, going on the road as a drummer and getting married. For years Julie stays hidden, occasionally breaking out to try on make-up and women’s clothes. Eventually the strain becomes too much and after a sex change operation in 2006, Julie Clarke is born. “That little bloke,” as Julie describes her former self, is gone for ever.

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Most of us never think about our gender. We’re born male or female and just take it for granted, slotting in comfortably enough somewhere on the wide spectrum of sexuality, never thinking of swapping, apart from maybe the odd hen/stag do or fancy dress party.

There are others, however, who grow up knowing from an early age that they have been born into the wrong body, a body of the opposite sex from the one they think themselves to be. Today we’re familiar with transexuality and gender reassignment surgery, but when Julie was a boy, she might as well have suggested joining Neil Armstrong on the moon.

Today Julie is a 58-year-old heterosexual woman, who works for Caledonian MacBrayne and lives on the island of Coll in the Hebrides. She started living as a woman in 2004 and had gender reassignment surgery in 2006. Always slim-hipped – she’s a size 10 in skinny jeans, 12-14 top, and almost five foot six – the only links to her past life are the facts she’s handy with a toolkit if you’re needing any renovation work done, she gives a mean fireman’s lift, and she can tie up a 4,000 tonne ferry without breaking a nail. She’s on good terms with her ex-wife and most of her family and friends, but it’s been a long journey to get where she is now, a journey she has revisited in her memoir, Becoming Julie, which is published this week.

Before becoming Julie, Clarke was so repulsed by her male body, she couldn’t bear to look at herself.

“The thought of ever being back there makes me feel sick because I associate it with bad memories,” she says. “I don’t miss anything about it.”

Ask her his name, “that little bloke that no-one noticed or liked” as she describes him, and she doesn’t say; she hates it, never uses it.

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“If there’s a guy with the same name I had, it freaks me out completely. I can’t face it. It’s another person. One that I detest, that almost ruined my life. I spent all my life trying to get away from that little bloke and being pulled back knocks the s**t out of me. It plays on my mind. Imagine if I woke up and the last ten years had been a dream. It scares the hell out of me,” she says.

Writing the book took Julie about a year and a half, in which she turned what started as a chronological record for her own peace of mind into a book about her life journey up till now.

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“It’s not for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender community, it’s aimed at everyone. I pride myself on my ordinary-ness,” she says.

“It was a very cathartic process. I had to revisit dark periods and face up to a lot of things I’d put behind me, especially from primary school ... the teachers. That’s the one thing that still upsets me a wee bit, to think how they treated me as a child.”

One teacher cornered her in the changing rooms and threatened her, while others ritually humiliated her, questioning her sexuality.

“It was sheer ignorance,” she says. “You’re talking about the 1960s in Perthshire and nobody knew how to act or treat someone who wasn’t what they should have been. So they turned on me and treated me like some kind of freak. They were scared so it was get rid of it, or make its life hell.”

“I didn’t want to do the stuff the boys were doing. Football, conkers, I wasn’t interested. I always felt easier being with the girls, watching them, thinking I would love to be doing what they were doing. It was just what I thought I should be.

“The age of seven was a pivotal time. That’s the age I remember becoming conscious of it. When that girl said that about my hands, I knew I liked it but I didn’t know why. It was in my head, but later on it became more of a physical thing, and I started wearing my sister’s clothes, wanting to look female too. My mind was beginning to tell me it was the wrong body and I began to find it difficult even to look at it, so it wasn’t a decision. There was no decision ever made. It was always just there. I wasn’t gay. When I was a teenager fancying Davy Jones from The Monkees, it was as a heterosexual girl.”

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Living as a man was something Julie was good at. She grew up in a pub where she learnt drumming, and after working as a baker and in a quarry, achieved her ambition of joining the fire service like her father. Drumming, quarries, firefighting? “I couldn’t think of any other way,” she says.

Julie’s mother and grandfather knew about the dressing up in her elder sister’s clothes, but it was never openly discussed. Today her parents have accepted her as she is.

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“It’s a compromise,” she says. “They’re happy that I’m happy. They would rather I had been different, but they have accepted it and know it couldn’t be any other way.

“When I was younger they brushed it under the carpet. They didn’t mean to treat me like that, there was no badness in them, but they wanted to hide me a bit. That made me think I’m going to do this, and if no-one is going to help, I will do it myself. That was an ethic I picked up and it’s stood me in good stead.

“Everyone thought I was gay. Nobody had heard of transgender. It was some dark word from another dimension, even to me when I first heard it. I don’t want my mum and dad to appear bad. They just didn’t know what to do. Doctors didn’t want to know either.”

As Clarke grew into adulthood and fell in love and married, the male side was winning, but increasingly Julie would reassert herself. She would drive to Glasgow and Edinburgh and go out dressed up, while her extremely understanding wife turned a blind eye. In 1995 the couple moved to Coll, where Clarke had spent idyllic, carefree summer holidays as a child, and where she “never had any mixed up thoughts”. But again Julie would re-emerge and finally their 20-year marriage broke down, although the couple remain friends. After the split, Clarke decided the time had come to consider sex change surgery.

“I came to Coll thinking it would cure my longing to be female but it turned out to be the very place that made it possible. Because it’s close-knit, they protected me so it was easier than in a place where there would be more prejudice. They gradually accepted me. There was one guy in the pub had a right go at me and the next week apologised. He said, ‘what’s wrong with me that I can’t accept you for what you are? You’re part of us.’ It was Coll that turned out to be the catalyst and made my story,” she says.

Julie has a rare viewpoint in the minefield of gender relations in that she’s been both sexes. When she was a man, she admits to being ashamed and irritated by the way men talked about their partners.

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“I got annoyed when I heard blokes talking about how they ruled the roost and trying to look macho in front of the rest. It p***ed me off.”

Aren’t women sexist too, now that she’s privy to their conversations?

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“Yes, they are, but to a lesser degree and more subtly. It’s in a different way and much less aggressive and powerful or possessive. But I have had the best of both worlds.”

And she has the advantage of knowing how men think.

“Yes, I do!” she laughs.

Julie also enjoyed the camaraderie of the fire station, a male bonding on which the crew’s lives often depended.

“Yes, that was something that all those male chauvinists, if you like to call them that, had. That’s the plus point, their total support for their mates. That bound them together. That was impressive and even with all the trouble with me at times, when they found out about me, that bond was still there. That was a great experience and I miss that. But women have that too, and women firefighters are the same, have the same trust. It’s just that they’re in the minority.”

Is being a woman just how Julie imagined it?

“I thought people would be courteous, and they are. I feel that being a woman is better than being a man. Folk open doors and get up and give you a seat. I appreciate it very much if someone helps me with a bag.”

Not that Julie actually needs help with a bag; it’s the courtesy she appreciates.

“I never took hormones so physically my strength is the same as it was. I felt I didn’t need them. I had quite a nice wee figure and I didn’t have male features as such and they have side effects, such as depression, so they weren’t for me. I used to worry about my health when I was younger, but when it came to this huge operation, there was never any doubt,” she says.

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“Huge operation” is no understatement. Those of you with penises may wish to cross your legs at this point. Julie’s surgery, after a diagnosis of gender dysphoria, entailed the removal of her penis and the formation of a vagina from some of the tissue, as well as breast implants.

“It’s not a case of just cutting the penis off,” she says. “It takes four hours and it’s complicated. The urethra is shortened, and tissue from the penis is used inside the vagina so it’s sensitive. And a clitoris is created. It feels great. I have a working vagina. I can have sex and feel excited, and climax. It looks right too, aesthetically. The only thing is if I haven’t had sex for a while I have to dilate myself to keep the vagina open.

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“The operation was debilitating for four or five months. At first I couldn’t sit, or walk. It was painful, but I knew it would go away eventually. I have the usual issues women have – thrush sometimes – I’m exactly the same. I love going to my gynaecologist. He treats me just like any other woman.”

Does she ever miss having a penis?

“No. Before the surgery the doctor asked, how do you think you will come to terms with losing male genitalia? I said I have already come to terms with it. I just want rid of it. I was disgusted when I looked at myself naked. Even the night before, I never thought, I’m going to miss it. It was the best thing that ever happened.”

Ten years on Julie has no regrets, either about the operation or the time she spent living as a man.

“I have never been more sure about anything ever. I’m full of everything I have become. I couldn’t have gone on as I was. I’m glad it took me so long because it meant I was damn sure I was doing the right thing. I did feel I had tried. Those things, drumming, firefighting, were giving the bloke a chance. I kept on trying to suppress the female.”

Today Julie still works for CalMac ferries in the same job, and is full of praise for her employer.

“They have been wonderful. They made a mistake at first over the toilets, telling me I couldn’t use the women’s, but it was a genuine mistake because they hadn’t had to face it before. They rectified it very quickly and apologised. They did their best to understand and work with it and protect me.”

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Others weren’t quite so accepting. “There was one guy who had known me for 20 years and he said, ‘I just see him with make-up on.’ But he got over it and now when I meet him it’s ‘Jules this’ and ‘Jules that’.”

Maybe they liked the man she was, I suggest, even if Julie herself didn’t.

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“Yes, there were some people that didn’t want to lose him because they liked him. But after a while most folk said, ‘I like you better as a woman.’ I’m sure I’m nicer because I’m not battling with stuff and I turned from a mundane person into being outgoing, happy, positive. The elation is very real. I look in the mirror and love what I see. I didn’t have that before.”

Day to day, Julie’s appearance isn’t hugely different from before the surgery. We’re not in drag queen territory here. It’s less about aping femininity and the outward characteristics that are lazy shorthand for gender, than simply just being female. Ask yourself, how often do the women in your lives really wear skyscraper tranny-heeled shoes and false eyelashes?

“At work I wear the CalMac uniform, so it’s the same,” she says. “Black boots and trousers, white shirt, same as the guys. But I have my nails and mascara done, and sensible earrings, and try to keep 
my hair as nice as I can in the wind here. The rest of the time I have boots with a bit of a heel, smart jeans and a top. You don’t have to wear a skirt to be a woman, or thigh-length boots. I’m Julie Clarke the woman and I don’t need a mini-skirt to be that.

“I think people are so used to it they forget. I’m just me. And when I go somewhere else, no-one bats an eyelid. It’s wonderful. I’m one of the lucky ones, I feel completely accepted here, but there’s still a long way to go for others.”

The island gave Julie a safe haven, but now that she’s hoping to meet someone of the opposite sex, an island with a population of only 250 may become too small.

“There’s no point thinking a guy will walk down the gangplank one day. I need to be out there, amongst more people. I have a lot of stuff I want to do as Julie Clarke. I’m very safe here, but I want to get away and get a bit of action before I get too old. I’m back into the music now, drumming and doing more sessions and gigs.

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“I haven’t gone through the last 50 years to sit around waiting. I want to show off Julie Clarke to the rest of the world. Who I am, this woman.”

•Becoming Julie by Julie Clarke is published on Monday by Fledgling Press, £11.99 (www.fledglingpress.co.uk), www.julieclarkeauthor.co.uk

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•Julie Clarke will be signing her book at the following Waterstones branches: Thursday, 6 November, Waterstones, Oban, 6:30pm; Saturday, 8 November, Island Café, Isle of Coll, 6:30pm; Thursday, 13 November, Waterstones, George Street, Edinburgh, 6:30pm; Thursday, 20 November, Waterstones, Islington, London, 6:30pm (waterstones.com).

•Julie Clarke will also be on BBC Radio Scotland’s Culture Studio Show talking to Janice Forsyth, 2pm, Friday, 7 November.