Creating a fairer Britain
Sam stared out of the window, watching the morning appear like a photograph in developing solution. He could see Maindy Comprehensive in the distance, nestled between the jagged ridges of Pen Pych Mountain. He took a deep breath. Two nights ago he’d found a new item of clothing in his mother’s sewing bag. His mother’s sewing bag was in fact a plastic bin bag, with a handwritten label that said, ‘Sewing’, sellotaped to its black belly. Fat with old tea dresses and twin sets that his mother always intended to alter, but never did. It was a constant source of wonderment to Sam. For hours he sat under the eaves with it, unfurling the reel of powder-blue lace then rolling it up again, handling the satin, animal-print scarf. And then he’d found the skirt. The one he was going to wear to school today.
It was laid out on his single bed, slate-grey in the half-light. He picked it up and sashayed into it, the cotton coarse against his skin. He observed it in the mirror, pleated and almost touching his feet. It was long because it had belonged to his older sister, Susie, when she’d gone to Maindy Comp. She was an anti-pornography-feminist, always complaining about half-soaked male teachers who deliberately dropped pencils under the desks in order to cop a look at the girls' knickers. The girls were allowed to wear trousers now anyway, and Susie was at Jesus College in Oxford, being brilliant, while Sam was left here to do battle with the Neanderthals. His mother called him from the kitchen but he shouted back at her, something about eating at the breakfast club, his voice echoing through the house. He slipped out of the front door and walked a mile to school instead of catching the eight-thirty bus.
The trouble started at the gates. There was a group of fifth-formers leaning against the concrete pillar, sharing a Lambert & Butler. ‘Look at that!’ one of them said, voice breathy with disbelief as Sam ambled past in his skirt. A rumble of laughter surfaced, like water hitting its boiling point. ‘Pervert,’ another called; voice sour with anger. One of them kicked an empty Coke can in his direction. It hit the back of his shin and then spun into the gutter.
‘Bet Eddie Izzard doesn’t have to put up with this,’ Sam thought, as he continued walking towards the school, heading for his sixth-form classroom. He’d anticipated the boy’s reaction, and knew there was worse to come, but he couldn’t help being a cross-dresser anymore than he could help being born in south Wales. Where the behaviourism had originated, nature, or nurture, he wasn’t sure. He’d grown up in a house occupied by women, no men, and before Susie’d given up on lipstick, she’d spent much of her spare time painting it onto his lips, as if he’d been her own living doll. There were baby pictures of him pasted into the family album, pairs of dangling clip-on earrings hanging from his tiny earlobes. And now, at seventeen, he knew he preferred high-heels to brogues, dresses to dress-shirts, hair-straighteners to air-rifles. He also knew that it took the courage of ordinary people to change the views of the world; he thought about racial segregation in 1950’s America and about Rosa Parks, refusing to give her Alabama bus seat to a white skinned passenger.
Sam’s first lesson was Welsh history with Dave ‘the duffer’ Davies. He had a complexion like a parsnip, openly admitted to being homophobic and was a stickler for good grammar. Recently they’d been studying the 1797 invasion of Britain, in which an inebriated French army were scared away from the Pembrokeshire coast by groups of Welsh women in their traditional felt hats. It was a subject that fascinated Sam, but even before he’d made it to his seat, Duffer had noticed the skirt.
‘How dare you!’ he said, peering over the top of his half-moon spectacles, as though Sam had insulted him.
‘Sir?’ Sam said, standing uncertain in the middle of the room, everybody’s attention focused on his clothes.
‘What on earth are you wearing?’ Duffer said, face scarlet with indignation.
‘A skirt’, Sam said, stating the obvious.
‘Get out!’ Duffer shrieked. He threw a crumpled piece of paper into the waste basket for effect. ‘Get out of my classroom, boy!’
It would have been a matter for the school counsellor, had she not been off sick. As it was, Sam had to wait in the school office until the lesson had ended. Then Duffer turned up, his papers clamped in the crook of his arm, his breath smelling of tea and tobacco. They sat facing one another, the deputy head in the corner; hands fastened around a bottle of mineral water.
‘What’s all this nonsense about then, Samuel?’ Duffer said, glancing at his wristwatch. ‘It’s stated quite clearly in the school rules that male pupils are not permitted to wear skirts. So don’t you go giving me any of that human rights guff.’ An awkward peel of laughter fell from the side of his mouth.
The deputy head offered a deliberate cough. A student at a nearby school had just won the right to wear a religious bangle in class after taking her fight to the High Court. It was a quite the hot potato.
‘Mr Davies, I’d prefer it if you called me Sam,’ Sam said, ‘and in my defence I’d like to point out that what the school rules say is “Pupils of both sexes must wear appropriate uniform.”’ He pointed to the rule on the print-out the deputy had given him. ‘This skirt is regulated uniform. My sister used to wear it, and it’s appropriate for me, me being a cross-dresser.’
Duffer laughed out loud. ‘Who do you think you are? Quentin bloody Crisp?’
‘Are you referring to my sexuality now?’ Sam said. ‘Quentin Crisp was gay. I’m not gay. I’m a cross-dresser. And while we’re on the subject of human rights, it is a basic human right for me to be able to express myself.’ In essence, Sam knew his point was accurate, but freedom of expression was a difficult issue to manage. He knew that for the foreseeable future, schoolboys would not be allowed to wear skirts to school, because they’d get beaten up by boorish fifth-formers. They’d turn it into a health and safety concern. What Sam wanted was for the school, for Duffer in particular, to acknowledge his deed as an innocuous one. Transvestism wasn’t wrong. Girls wore what they wanted, and Sam did too. But Duffer stood up, whipped the school rules out of Sam’s hands and threw them across the room.
‘What is the world coming to?’ he said wagging his finger in Sam’s face. ‘Gay cowboy films and gay weddings. Gay women and gay vicars.’
‘I’m not gay,’ Sam said, ‘more of a male lesbian.’
Duffer ignored him, said, ‘There’ll be a flipping fairy in The White House next.’ He walked out of the office, slammed the door behind himself. Sam looked at the deputy head who was still sitting in the corner, biting her nails. ‘Looks like you’ve started something now,’ she said. Sam guessed it wouldn’t be the revolution that he wanted; a liberal utopia governed by tolerance instead of fear. More like Duffer would get a warning for using insensitive language in front of a pupil. But Sam also knew that this was the way the world was changed, step by step by step.
‘Wait outside for the moment, please,’ the deputy said. ‘I need to have a word with the headmaster.’
‘Yes Miss,’ Sam said. As he was about to leave he turned and focused on a sliver of emerald pinned to the woman’s lapel.
‘Miss?’ he said.
‘That’s a very nice brooch you’re wearing there, Miss.’