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Interview: Transgender playwright Jo Clifford

THROUGHOUT her 59 years – most as a man, the final nine lived as a woman – Jo Clifford has done some fairly extraordinary things.

She's witnessed human suffering while working as a geriatric nurse and later with psychiatric patients. Then there was a bizarre spell in Fife living in a commune and working as a bus conductor.

She's studied languages, lectured university students in the theatre, watched the love of her life die from a brain tumour and endured school bullying, taunts and prejudices on the bumpy road from being John, to finding peace in her sexuality as Jo.

Little, however, could compare to the night she waited behind the scenes of a Glasgow theatre as the minutes ticked down to the opening of her latest play while an angry mob laid siege outside.

"First night nerves were considerably worse because of all these people outside who were so angry," she explains. "I was frightened one of them might try to get into the audience and cause a fuss during the performance. That was very scary."

Last month's scenes at the opening night of Jesus Queen of Heaven – Jo's take on what would have happen if Jesus returned to earth as a transsexual woman – brought the Christian fanatics out in force. In scenes reminiscent of the days when Pastor Jack Glass Bible-thumped in fury at films like The Last Temptation of Christ, 300 placard-waving protesters condemned her for daring to cast Jesus as not only a woman, but one who's just had a sex-change, and for grossly offending their beliefs and "assaulting Christian values".

The offence they caused Jo with placards which read "God: My Son is Not a Pervert" and retorts to comments that they hadn't seen the play such as "We don't need to go down the sewer to know it stinks", appeared, she says, completely lost on them.

Today the furore has calmed down and Jo is back at her home near Calton Road. She is a striking presence: tall and slim with slightly wild shoulder-length wispy hair and a faint smear of lipstick, she's dressed in androgynous black trousers and flat shoes, topped off with a simple black wrap-over cardigan. Underneath, however, a fine soft blue camisole top trimmed with lace peeks out and her decolletage is decorated with pretty strands of a blue beaded necklace. A blood-red chunky bangle rattles on her wrist.

When she speaks, it's with a deep, distinctly masculine voice that she doesn't make any attempt to disguise.

The result is a head-turning "is he a she, or she a he?" combination that causes some to stop dead in their tracks, a few – oblivious to how rude their reaction might be – to eventually point and laugh.

That ignorance and prejudice, Jo says she can pretty much handle. After all, it's been part of her background since the age of five when she was John, staring into the mirror at home and wondering who this boy was that was looking back.

Harder to accept, however, is the ire of fellow Christians who she had hoped might be more understanding.

"I knew it was a territory that no-one goes into and I thought that people might be upset," admits Jo, a renowned playwright. "I suppose what got people really upset was the publicity photo – we were trying to find an image to convey the fact that the play was about Jesus and he was transgendered. It was tricky to do."

The image which appeared on flyers and posters was one of Jo in borrowed white top and white skirt, photographed in a garage outside her home, lit in such a way that she appears surrounded by a heavenly halo. Her hands are outstretched, blood seeping from stigmata wounds. All that and the fact it was premiered at last month's Glasgay! festival and the Christian backlash on the scale of Jerry Springer: The Musical was guaranteed.

"It's a good play," insists Jo, who wrote it as a sequel to God's New Frock, a semi-autobiographical work based around a male struggling with his urge for a life as a woman. "I'm very proud that I was able to perform it myself. It took a lot in terms of overcoming my own shame and fears."

John became Jo nine years ago after a lifetime of wrestling with feelings of self-loathing, confusion, shame and hurt.

"I knew as a young boy," says Jo. "I coped with it with huge difficulty and suffering. My mum died when I was 12 years old and I wasn't close to my dad at all, I couldn't talk to him about it."

Unfortunately, Jo was a pupil at a strict public school – Clifton College in Bristol – where boys were expected to be masculine and anyone "different" could expect bullying and beatings. "There was nothing to do except hide it," recalls Jo. "And that caused a huge amount of damage."

So he embarked on life as a man. When he met future wife, writer Sue Innes, aged 21 – he told her straight away of his gender issues. They went on to have two daughters, Rebecca, 29, and Katie, 24.

Their life together was content, reflects Jo. But underlying day-to-day family life, was this ongoing struggle that frightened and ashamed both of them. "I had a bit of a breakdown and felt I needed to go through this transition, but she was dead against and felt it would be a disaster for our relationship.

"We'd been together 33 years, I said 'okay' but it was a painful time.

"I stopped wearing men's clothes in the late Nineties," she recalls. "I became an androgynous person, I didn't try to pass myself off as a woman – sometimes people would talk to me as a woman, then they'd apologise. But I hated being treated as a man. It was a complicated time."

Tragically, Sue died suddenly from a brain tumour in 2005, aged 56. Jo recalls during her final days, a voice in her head telling her "The female inside you is wholly good" and "This female self will help you through this and help you rebuild a new life."

Since then Jo has undergone some sex swap surgery but prefers to be viewed as "transgender" – a kind of "third sex" individual. It's a look that often prompts negative reaction, such as the shopping trip to Tesco when a young woman stood agog, yanked on her boyfriend's arm and bellowed: "Look, it's a man!"

That, shrugs Jo, she can take – after all, she admits these days she can "look in the mirror and know who is there". Harder to comprehend is the bile levelled at her for daring to pose awkward questions about Christianity.

"These are people who believe spiritual life is important in today's society – and I do too," she nods. "They think Jesus's role should not be disrespected – and so do I.

"But they also believe that someone like me is a piece of filth of some sort. That's the kind of prejudice they need to overcome."

STAGE SET FOR CONTROVERSY

PUT Jesus, the Bible and theatre together and the result can be a gathering of angry Christian protesters – with Jesus Queen of Heaven, just the latest in a long line of such productions.

Glasgow preacher Pastor Jack Glass was notorious for leading his followers at the Zion Baptist Church in anti-theatre protests, including one over a Billy Connolly show featuring a crucifixion sequence. Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ attracted 1,554 complaints when it was screened on TV in 1995 and Monty Python's Life of Brian was banned or given an X certificate by 39 local authorities upon its release.

More recently the BBC enraged Christian groups when it announced plans to screen Jerry Springer The Musical.

 
 
 

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