Going back to school after the long summer break is hard for most children. It's not just that they have to swap lazy, carefree days for hard work, scratchy uniforms and strict|discipline.
There's also the challenging social terrain that has to be renegotiated. The school jungle is a noisy, febrile place where power struggles thrive and any kind of difference — ginger hair, a posh accent, a funny-looking overcoat — is seen as a reason to be singled out for ridicule.
That's why my heart went out to the 10-year-old British boy who started the new school year dressed as a girl. The pupil, who wants to remain anonymous, has a condition called gender dysphoria. He may look like a boy, but inside he feels like a girl.
The head teacher held a special assembly — attended by the child's parents and police officers — to explain the changes to the other pupils, in the hope of preventing bullying. While the youngsters have managed to get their heads around the issue, it seems that their parents haven't been so enlightened. The child's mother claims he has been shunned by the local community, with neighbours and otherparents calling him a “freak child”.
Freak. Just one of the hurtful insults casually thrown at transgendered people. Too often they are treated as an absurd joke, a legitimate target of public ridicule, to be pointed at and laughed at, regardless of their feelings. Many sections of the media reinforce this cartoonish stereotype, treating transgender people with sneers, innuendo and contempt.
Here in Northern Ireland, where May McFettridge is seen by many as the last word in comic genius, we're particularly guilty of this kind of juvenile mockery. It's a guaranteed crowd-pleaser: just stick a burly-looking bloke in a Tina Turner wig, high heels and a shiny gown and you'll have the crowds crying with laughter.
The reality is very different. Last year, I had the pleasure of meeting the members of the Belfast Butterfly Club, a support network for transgendered people and their families.
The club is a private place where members — predominantly heterosexual cross-dressing men — can meet and give each other support. They can experience the freedom and the pleasure of donning a silky dress, or strapping on a pair of delicate high heels. One member, known as Aoife, said simply: “I feel liberated, natural, truly myself — the way I want to be.”
Now who would begrudge another human being that?
I admit that it is startling when you first come face-to-face with a middle-aged man dressed as a woman. But the surprise is momentary. After all, other things matter more — open-mindedness, articulacy, humour and warmth. I was struck by the gentleness and courtesy of the Butterfly Club members, and by their hard-won insights into the irresistible cross-dressing impulse that has been with them — just like that 10-year-old schoolboy — since early childhood.
Secrecy has been — and remains — the watchword of these transvestite lives. The vast majority are married, and they come from all walks of life: lawyers, |policemen, doctors, teachers and politicians. When the army was on the streets, the Butterfly Club had many members from the military.
Michelle is married but keeps his cross-dressing a closely-guarded secret from his wife, family and work colleagues.
Despite her stylish, convincing get-up — immaculate right down to her smooth legs and carefully-painted fingernails — Michelle will not venture out in public dressed as a woman, for fear of being identified and mocked as ‘a bloke in a dress'.
Alice only came out to his family after 25 years of guilt, anxiety and confusion.
When I met her, she was proudly wearing a dress bought by her mother — a small, poignant sign of acceptance. But many transvestites never reveal their true selves to family members. And it's not a coincidence that most of the calls to the club's helpline come from public phone boxes in the middle of nowhere. The caller may have taken months — or even years — working up the courage to ring the Butterfly Club.
These transgendered people do not need or want our pity. But they do deserve to live the life they choose, free of prejudice and disdain. It's time for this society to stop sniggering and grow up. In November, the Belfast Butterfly Club will celebrate its 20th birthday with a special Butterfly Ball.
I hope they enjoy each and every moment of it, all the delights of primping, polishing, pampering and parading. Because they're worth it.