Dealing with my sexual brokenness
Clifford Smyth, respected Orange historian and family man, tells of the transvestite compulsions which have made his life a struggle.
Published 20/07/2005 | 00:00
La Dolce Vita, Frederico Fellini's film released in 1960 was to play a crucial role in my life. I was sweet sixteen, living with my parents and sister near the Royal Naval Dockyard at Rosyth on the Firth of Forth. I wasn't academically gifted, muddling through at Dunfermline High School. I was ill at ease with team games; some unspoken dread. I did enjoy fishing trips or swimming with other young people on a Sunday afternoon at the shore base, HMS Caledonia.
There was one strange activity which added to my isolation; I loved putting on make-up and wearing girl's clothes. I knew this was weird, but my hobby gave intense pleasure until, that is, La Dolce Vita, reached the silver screen. A film review in the Scottish Sunday Express did the trick, defining my infantile diversion as something dark and unwholesome.
Illustrating the nihilism of Fellini's masterpiece, the critic described a scene of decadent abandon, in which "transvestites" cavorted about in flouncey skirts. I identified with their enthusiasm, only to realize that I too must be a transvestite.
Though the word had registered, its implications eluded me. I did not know how to respond. Anyway I had no need to dress-up, had I? I could take it or leave it. More than that, years before, I had asked Jesus into my heart, I could pray and He would hear my cry.
Examinations soon imposed other priorities. .
Two years later I was re-establishing my roots in Belfast where I would become a trainee quantity surveyor. I conducted a private funeral before bidding farewell to Rosyth. I purged myself of all that girlie stuff. My frillies were consigned to a rusty incinerator. Pink knickers, net petticoats and tiered skirts went up in smoke. "That's, that!"
Weeks later, anxious and alone, finding it more difficult to fit in to adult life than I had anticipated, I went in search of a comfort zone in my landlady's attic. Squeezing into one of her daughter's party frocks purloined from a wardrobe, I panicked as the zip jammed.
This powerful resurgence of my freaky behaviour, persuaded me to attempt some research. What I found in the textbooks was deeply unnerving. Was I doomed? I fell on my knees.
Other compulsive excursions would follow; my prayers went unanswered, yet I never lost hope.
Some years passed and help did arrive.
Now active in the Orange Order, I was introduced in the mid-60s to a fervent Protestant. He jolted my puritan reserve when he disclosed that he was an expert on sex. Trusting, I confessed my frailty. He offered pastoral counselling, but beneath the surface lurked monsters.
In despair I had opened my heart to one of the most dangerous and enigmatic figures of the Ulster conflict. In the near future, he would know that the IRA were coming before they came, pen the 'birth certificate of the UDA', successfully run guns, and meet the criteria for an agent provocateur.
In my determination to exorcise my troubles I had only compounded them.
Many years later I sat in the corner of the Session Room of my Presbyterian Church. I was terrified, and felt that at any moment I would wet myself. I knew what was coming.
Only weeks before one of the Orange Order's Committees had held an irregular meeting in my own home. My personal life was under scrutiny. Having some experience of the way things are done in Ulster, I had taken the precaution of asking my own minister to sit in on that meeting.
My life was under the spotlight because I had provided part of the Christmas entertainment at a large unionist party function in Portadown. While my wife Anne sang and played the accordion, I had recited some of the poems of WF Marshall, and then reappeared dressed as the 1930s film star, Carmen Miranda.
This wasn't the first time I had appeared in drag. Dressing-up as Marlene Dietrich, or Dame Edna Everage had been a route mapped out by my marriage guidance counsellor as we had tried to work out a strategy for managing my transvestism.
Marriage counselling had been yet another attempt to find help. And help was needed because the first person in whom I confided my bizarre behaviour, all those years before, was none other than William McGrath, founder of Tara which served as a catalyst to loyalist paramilitarism.
McGrath had been exposed as a notorious sexual predator. I found myself embroiled in the Kincora sex scandal. Interviewed by the RUC, and the Intelligence Services, and warned of the likelihood of my personal life being exposed to public gaze at some impending inquiry, I had at last taken Anne's advice and sought help.
I was extremely candid with my Orange brethren, but in my heart I knew they were on a witchhunt. By this stage I had learned how to read the signs.
In November 1976 I had been called to a meeting in Ian Paisley's Parsonage where I would be accused of passing on information to Merlyn Rees's office at Stormont and of having compiled a document which made scandalous allegations about leading loyalist politicians. Ian Paisley was irate and the whole atmosphere was deeply hostile. Nothing had prepared me for this. I didn't know what was going on. I was mystified but some of the information that I was aware of, had come from the lips of Ian Paisley's paid employees. I felt there was little alternative but to take whatever was coming to me however unfair the situation might be.
I offered to resign from the DUP only to realise that this had been the undeclared aim of the meeting all along!
My wife Anne was outraged at my decision, prevailing upon me to put up some kind of fight in my own defence. Letters were exchanged with Ian Paisley, but they made no difference, I was out on my ear.
I was determined not to give up my commitment to unionist politics despite having been thrown out of the DUP. A year later I would begin doctoral research into the very party that had exiled me.
Life moved on, and in due course I became chairman of a pressure group which argued that the British Labour party was morally obliged to field candidates for elections in Northern Ireland. When the Campaign for Equal Citizenship as it was called, attempted to stage-manage my removal, I had learned enough to know I could sit the meeting out.
Numbers shrank as the night wore on. The next evening a small delegation arrived at my home and asked for my resignation. I still hadn't a clue as to what I had done to upset them; but accepted the inevitable.
The imminent Session Room inquisition fitted this pattern.
I had pleaded with my minister, but to no avail. He answered that, according to the code of the Presbyterian Church he was entitled to tell the Kirk Session of my sin. I knew I could take to my heels and run - instead I followed him into the crowded meeting
I threw myself on God's mercy as the minister spoke, and suddenly a wonderful peace enveloped me. When the minister had finished his denunciation of my sexual brokenness before all the elders present, I was given the strength to speak.
This is what I said:
"I confess before you all that I am a failed human being. There is not a single man in this room who would volunteer to be in the situation in which I find myself. Others in my circumstances have committed suicide, become alcoholics or suffered marriage breakdown.
"I have a wonderful wife and I love her very dearly. I have four children whom I love very much. I thank God for all he has done in my life, and I praise his holy name. And now, if you don't mind, I ask permission to leave the room."
I left in tears. I would cry non-stop for three days and nights, much as my wife Anne tried to comfort me.
Anne reacted vehemently, which I found strangely comforting. Anne said she would never darken another church again, while I was more hopeful. Time passed and we found a charismatic fellowship which specialised in taking in waifs and strays.
In due course I became involved in a work of healing in Belfast originally pioneered by the Charismatic Vineyard Ministries in the United States. The Bible-based course reached out to Christians struggling with issues associated with sexual brokenness.
There God met me, and I was delivered from transvestism. My masculine-self had finally been asserted. From now on everything would be plain sailing . . or so I thought.
For tragedy on a scale I could not have imagined was to shatter my life.
And, as I will explain tomorrow, in my grief and pain, the compulsion to put on make-up and dress in women's clothes would suddenly re-assert itself.