My Dad died, aged 90, in July 2012. He was a working man in the old style – Socialist, a plumber and a worker with his hands. When I worked with him on the building sites he swore like a trooper but kept his language clean at home.
I was never physically abused as I would define it but when he did hit me, he hit hard and it hurt. He was so talented as an artist that his art teacher offered to pay for him to go through college. But Dad saw art as somehow not a proper job and took up a plumbing apprenticeship instead.
He was born and brought up in rural Cornwall in the 1920s and ‘30s. Always single-minded to the point of stubbornness he refused to sing in the church choir even though he was in it; forced to go to church by his religious mother he would fold his arms and clamp his mouth shut during every service until they gave up and released him from the choir.
In the RAF he challenged his senior officer to court martial him for refusing to attend compulsory church parade. The RAF backed down and he was excused.
For my first 40 years we were at odds. He was 40 when I was born, older than most dads, and we were from different worlds. He was a rough and ready plumber who brought up in Cornwall during the depression – an area of tin mines where he used to play in the arsenic-soaked drains.
I was an arty-farty child of the 70s who grew up with long hair, necklaces and bracelets and no interest or aptitude for physical work. I was an acorn which had fallen a long way from the tree.
I went for a coffee with my Mum today and she said she and Dad kept a secret and with his death she was now the sole bearer. I asked what it was and she said she couldn’t tell me. In my experience that’s all part of a ‘game’ people play; when they say they have a secret they can’t share you know they are going to. They just need to feel it was pulled from them so you have to play along.
As an only-child with a happy upbringing and no real traumas to talk about, I have always fantasised about some secret which makes me ‘different’ or gives me some piece of angst to flaunt. I always favoured a half-brother or sister given away before I was born. Whilst I have mostly been happy as an only-child, I have always been intrigued what another version of me would be like – especially a female me.
Since we learned we couldn’t have children I have come to accept that I was never going to meet a mini-me. So a half-brother or sister was the best I could hope for. My mate, Dave, learned he had a half-brother and I was quite envious.
That wasn’t the secret.
For a brief moment I was actually disappointed when I learned the secret was something else entirely. Then it sunk in. Dad’s secret was so left-field, so out of a clear blue sky that had Mum asked me to guess it wouldn’t have been in my top-20.
Dad was a cross-dresser.
My Dad, a powerfully-built effing and blinding man’s man of a plumber liked dressing in women’s clothes. He ‘confessed’ this not long after I was born so this must have been in the early ‘60s. This was even before the Permissive Society and he was embedded in a self-image created in a rural back-water in the 1930s. It wasn’t as if he’d been born into Bohemian London where he hung out with Quentin Crisp and more open-minded types.
To him it was a guilty secret. Mum said he was ashamed. It was something bad. Not to me it isn’t. Not now in the 21st Century. I wear kilts and own a pair of 5-inch stilettoes. But back then it was different. So for nearly 50 years they carried this secret. Mum bought Dad some female clothes of his own to wear but not, I suspect, because she was showing support; I got the impression that it was more because she found the idea of his wearing her clothes distasteful.
She never stopped loving him. It didn’t make her feel any the less for him. She’s still deep in mourning now. But after the initial confession they hardly talked about it again. It was an embarrassment to both of them. Dad was paranoid about any colleagues on the building sites finding out.
I don’t know when he used to dress up. Never in my life did I pick up the slightest clue. He didn’t go out dressed up; he only used to do it at home. I didn’t ask Mum what he wore or when he did it; that would have been prurient. I don’t need that detail.
It has started me thinking about some of the decisions he made in life; is that why he chose manual labour over an artistic career? Was he over-compensating and trying to assert his masculinity? I know cross-dressing and being gay are two different things, but was he worried about it in those less enlightened times? Having a ‘condition’ doesn’t make you an expert; you can be as ill-informed and prejudiced as everyone else.
He would have been mortified if I knew. And you know what, I might have been. It’s one thing to be all cool and enlightened when you’re talking about it in the abstract. But could I have been so liberal-minded when it was my own Dad?
This revelation hasn’t changed my feelings towards him one bit. I don’t love him any the less. He was a man struggling to supress something which should be no cause of shame at all. That’s not how he saw it, though. He was embarrassed and ashamed.
My Dad who seemed to have such a strong and fixed sense of identity carried a polyp of uncertainty.
There is a photograph of me, taken when I was in my early 20s. I am wearing a taffeta ball-gown, looking coquettishly at the camera. Mum told me today she was horrified when she saw it. She thought the shameful urge had been passed on to me. I just think it’s a funny picture. Dave has it now. I have an embarrassing one of him and we joke that if either one of us becomes famous the other one will sell it to a tabloid.
I do have a Bohemian taste in clothes. I do buy some women’s accessories for myself – mostly scarves, hats and jewellery. I do envy women’s shoes – they are much more attractive than the clod-hoppers made for men. I have also bought some women’s t-shirts in a size-18 plus. And of course there are the spike-heels.
I wouldn’t call myself a cross-dresser, though. I just like good clothes, irrespective of which gender they were designed for.
Maybe that is something of my Dad’s genetic influence though. I live in a world where I can be like that and still be secure in my own identity. Dad didn’t have that. For him it was something to be ashamed of.
Perhaps this acorn didn’t roll that far from the tree, after all. I have reached the end of this piece loving him even more. My Dad was a lovely, kind and talented bloke. A lovely, kind and talented bloke who liked to wear women’s clothes.
So fucking what?