Interview: Jo Clifford, playwright

ONE of Scotland's most respected playwrights, Jo Clifford talks about the long, painful journey to becoming an 'out' transgendered woman

JO CLIFFORD slips into the seat next to me at the caf, the very picture of well turned-out Edinburgh propriety. She is tall and softly-spoken. Her grey hair is pulled back and the wispy bits that have been tugged loose by the wind whistling down the High Street frame her lively features. She looks as sharp as a tack and as cosy as a cardigan, the sort who drinks milky tea and calls everyone dear, which it turns out she does. But there's a trace of mischief in her expression, a spark that suggests she could be a right laugh when she gets going. We order a pot of tea and a slice of spiced apple cake that the waitress has kept back especially for her. Then Clifford, a prominent playwright who has been making work in Scotland for more than two decades, tells me the remarkable tale of her life as a transgendered person.

"My daughter keeps saying, 'Dad, you should tell your life story,'" she says with a smile. She has always been "Dad" to her two children but equally has never felt right as a man. A few years ago Clifford started making the transition from John to Jo and these days she refers to herself as a transgendered person who passes as a woman. In fact, the journey began in Stoke-on-Trent and Bristol in the Sixties. "Imagine! I'm 59. Most people are giving up and I'm embarking on this new life. It's madness really, dear, totally crazy. But it's so lovely." Talking to Clifford I discover the only crazy part is the many years she spent filled with self-loathing. Grief at the loss of her partner, the mother of their children, four years ago marked a new chapter in the story. Becoming Jo has been a lifelong struggle.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

We're here to talk about Clifford's new play, Jesus, Queen of Heaven, which opens at Glasgay!, Glasgow's LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] festival of arts and culture, next month. Unsurprisingly, we spend more time on Clifford's own story. The two are inseparable. The first time Clifford explored being transgender was on stage in the school play. Later, in the years of "intense fear and isolation" when she suppressed her feelings about her gender identity, she wrote and performed less. Theatre was always the place where she expressed her transgendered voice and during the periods when she silenced it, it's no wonder the words wouldn't come.

"But as I became more able to live out being transgender, the performing side of me grew," she says. "I was able, even when I wasn't out, to live out my female self when I was writing plays. That was an enormous help. I remember a few years back speaking at a conference about Scottish writing. I introduced myself by saying I don't consider myself a Scottish playwright, a male playwright, or a female playwright. I'm a transgendered playwright. That was a really important moment. I'd come out to my friends on my 50th birthday but that was a moment of understanding that actually all my plays have a transgendered voice. It's my voice and it's unlike anybody else's."

Jesus, Queen of Heaven, which portrays Jesus as a transsexual woman and has been condemned by elements of the Christian community, is "about rescuing Jesus from the fundamentalists". But it's also about Clifford's pride in being transgendered; she insisted on performing the role herself. Her honesty is striking and within minutes I get a one-woman show of her memoirs, starting from the beginning, Clifford peppering her lines with laughter and relishing the story of her own life.

It's taken her a long time to get here. "There is an awful lot of hostility towards transgendered people," she says softly. "I'd internalised a lot of that and was terribly ashamed. I was ashamed for most of my life." These feelings formed the subject matter of a play Clifford wrote in 2002, when she still was identified as John, called God's New Frock. The new play is the sequel. "God's New Frock was partly an autobiographical piece about growing up transgendered and trying to suppress it," she explains. "The story I told was of me and God in parallel."

Clifford says in all seriousness that theatre and her 33-year relationship with radical feminist thinker Sue Innes saved her life. Innes, a renowned columnist for Scotland on Sunday in the 1990s, died suddenly of a brain tumour in 2005 at the age of 56. In an obituary her relationship with Clifford is described as "stormy but hugely successful". "I would be dead if it wasn't for her," says Clifford. "I just wouldn't have made it." Just before Innes died, Clifford says she heard a voice speaking to her. "It said, 'The female inside you is only good.' This was news to me because I'd always seen it as a misfortune as well as a blessing. But it was a question of trusting her because she would help me while Susie was dying. It was a huge comfort to me." It was only after Innes died that John felt it was possible to become Jo.

It would be easy to put Clifford's transition at least partly down to grief, a way of moving on through transformation. Losing Innes certainly played its part but Clifford has grappled with her gender identity ever since she looked in the mirror at the age of five and didn't recognise the boy staring back at her. I get the impression that being on her own gave her the confidence to do it. Also, becoming Jo wasn't really an option when they were together. "There was a stage when I thought I had to do it," Clifford explains. "She (Innes] was completely against it. She said she loved me as John and she was heterosexual. She was afraid it would be the end of us. It was devastating. Looking back on it I can see photos of myself then and understand that of course she didn't want to lose that man. We'd been together such a long time and had been so happy. I thought, 'I can't destroy that.'"

Clifford decided to wait. In the meantime she expressed her transgender feelings through dressing androgynously and, of course, writing plays. "It wouldn't go away. In fact, it kept growing. I was gradually becoming less and less ashamed and able to wear skirts at home, and some nights totter out in a dress and wig." How did going out feel the first time? "It was very exciting and scary. You know those big limos full of girls? One went past and they looked out the window and waved. I waved back. Then one said, 'It's a man,' and everyone burst into fits of laughter." Clifford was crushed but continued to walk on. "I survived. I didn't drop dead. The crowds didn't start gathering. It was fine in the end."

After Innes died, Clifford made the decision she had been grappling with for decades. "I realised I couldn't go on living as a man. I couldn't bear people taking me for a man. I didn't want to be called Sir. I started taking hormones and a whole new life began." Clifford has since had one operation but has decided not to go through with full reassignment surgery. "I'm done and really happy," she says. "I'm not a woman but I have to pass as one because if I make it too obvious that I'm biologically male every time I walk the street I'm at risk of being insulted and abused. You wouldn't believe how appalling some people are." Clifford believes the abuse directed at her reveals how unsatisfactory our understanding of gender has become. "They're scared because the present division of gender roles is untenable. The male role is stuffed. Women's understanding of themselves has transformed but men's has not. They're still retreating, stuck in a bunker. It's got to change."

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

We start talking about Clifford's years at a boys' boarding school in Bristol. "You had to play sports and I never fitted in properly," she says. "It was the worst possible place for me. The bullying was terrible." On stage it was a different story. "They always gave me the girls' parts. Obviously at some deep level it must have been obvious, even then." Playing Sylvia in NF Simpson's One Way Pendulum, Clifford remembers getting into costume and make-up for the first time. "It was... wow! But the second time I got terrified. I thought I must be a sick person. I was so frightened." Still, she told no one. "My mum was dead; I was very distant from my father. There was no one I could talk to."

Clifford went on to study languages at St Andrews, where she met Innes. "It was love at first sight," she says. "Extraordinary." Innes was the first person Clifford told about being transgender. "She was fantastic," she recalls. "She was a very fierce feminist. We believed that the end of capitalism was nigh, that the nuclear family was wrong, and that it was important to live differently. It was an amazing, heady time." They lived in a commune in Fife, had two children, and Clifford worked as a bus conductor, a nurse and a yoga instructor before turning to theatre at the age of 30.

"I've had a fantastic life as John, as a man," she muses as she runs through this history, pulling out a sheaf of papers with the dates of all the plays she's written from 1980 to the present and using it to prompt her memory. "It's been wonderful, absolutely bloody wonderful."

In 1985 Clifford's play Losing Venice was a major hit at the Traverse. It was invited to 21 festivals all over the world, though only ended up going to two ("Bloody Arts Council"). There have been many more since, apart from all the ones that disappeared, Clifford laughs, rolling her eyes. But it took another 14 years for her first play exploring being transgender, The Night Journey, to open. Clifford has gone on to adapt Anna Karenina and Goethe's Faust for the stage and next March a new play, Every One, will premiere at Edinburgh's Lyceum. These days all her work deals with questions of gender identity, and the relationship between life and theatre becomes ever closer. The Mercury Prize-winning torch singer Antony Hegarty (of Antony and the Johnsons] once told me that being transgender is about occupying a position of flux, a space between genders. He described it as a ruthlessly creative place to be. "Yes, yes, I'm so lucky," Clifford says quietly. "The common way to look at being transgendered is to see it as a great misfortune. There is a lot of suffering and I wouldn't wish it on my own worst enemy. But there's a fantastic richness and it's enabled me to live. Since coming out, it's such fun, I can't tell you."

Jesus, Queen of Heaven, Glasgow Tron, 3-7 November, 7.45pm