This post originally appeared at The Queerness.
Half of us who grew up queer in London in the Nineties, at St Paul’s Girls’ School or at any other, didn’t even understand that what we were doing was growing up queer.
For each of us who could already see themselves in a Grace Jones or a Richey Edwards and understand they were starting to reach out for an identity even though it might not have a name, there must have been as many who were well into their teens before they knew – or someone had to tell them – the different ways they failed to fit in might be connected.
Sex was what killed Freddie Mercury; attraction was what tears women-who-can’t-be-lesbians apart. I only wear dresses under protest and I like short hair and I like seeing other women who have it too, but none of that’s to do with being gay.
And in a sense, it wasn’t. One of the many ideas that would have helped me make sense of myself while I was on a scholarship at an elite London girls’ school two decades ago – one of the many ideas that, twenty years later, is now comprehensible enough even to many straight and cis teachers and parents for that same school to have allowing students to change their name and pronouns once they reach 16 – is that sexuality and gender identity and gender expression were all separate things.
That might be close to common knowledge for the so-much-more-fortunate, so-much-more-to-lose (I’m making it sound too easy here, I know), but unthinkable in the middle of the nineties, when even the women who dressed and drank like men went home with them, and the thread of girls who like boys who do boys like they’re girls petered out around the empty sign of that first ‘do’.
St Paul’s Girls’ School, like all its counterparts, already writes a history of gender variance into the lives of its trans students with every CV they have to write. What sets it apart is the combination of social status, intellectual dedication and perceived mission on top of that, as they intersected or clashed while I was there between 1993 and 2000, making St Paul’s its very own kind of head-turning but unforgiving place to find out what the ways you didn’t fit in might be telling you.
The iconoclastic story St Paul’s tells about itself, and which at its best it even lives, means that for the sake of its students’ self-expression, probably alone among London schools, it has no uniform; in the Sixties, Paulinas were already throwing off their school-issue coats and hats. A gender-non-conforming student at St Paul’s negotiates even more than the skirt-and-trousers regulations that make so many teens’ lives needlessly difficult or the everyday subversions of dress code I’d have learned as an alphabet if I’d gone anywhere else. It’s not a case of asking to wear, as a badly worded article in the Daily Mail put it, ‘boys’ uniform’; it’s a case of negotiating countless social and subcultural expectations, both those you choose and those that get projected on to you.
The space to experiment might be greater than any other British school, but so is the space to get it wrong.
Broadsheet newspapers usually sum up St Paul’s with reference to one or two famous old girls. The current favourites are Rachel Weisz and Harriet Harman; when I was there, it used to be Imogen Stubbs. They’re confident and upper-middle-class, commanding in the arts and principled in politics; ‘In Faith and Knowledge’, the school song’s meant to go, but what apocryphally makes one Old Paulina recognise another in Knightsbridge department stores is a former director of music’s Christmas carols, . The girls on assisted places had the golden ticket and the glass elevator to look through: an entrée to the world behind the curtain, or the chance to throw it all away. Justine Frischmann, from Elastica, had been to ours. It was 1995 and they’d just been the stars of Glastonbury and our headmistress never mentioned her at all.
A lesbian who picks up bits of masculinity like shiny buttons, usually attracted either to what I recognised in myself or what I wanted to, with no idea where class-based outsiderness stopped and gender and sexuality began, didn’t have a hope of pulling those things apart when everybody wanted to be Justine Frischmann.
Most of the concepts I’d have needed even to recognise that I was a lesbian, let alone that identities had more around the edges and maybe so might mine, wouldn’t reach me until years after I caught glimpses of people who might be like me, learned the hard way that most of them weren’t, did all of this without realising that identification and attraction could even be the same, and – with dozens of magazine sidebars and makeover shows telling me that that was all right; see, they’re talking to straight women – somehow wrapped that all up in the idea of wanting to look like other people. Because of course, that impulse was never queer.
I never got as far as asking for anything that today’s trans and non-binary students at St Paul’s, and their allies, have been campaigning for. I’d never even heard, and to my knowledge neither had any of my classmates, that anyone sent to school as a girl might not have been one. Nobody would have taken on the label lesbian unless they were brave enough to wear it like a provocation. Justine Frischmann didn’t work out. I tried something else. I found ever more elaborate justifications why I wasn’t what everyone told me I was, but I never wrote it in words. My parents must have been terrified I’d lose my scholarship; I ought to have been. They could come and get it. I found the self that steps up when I’m told to back down and twisted it into behaviour I should have stepped back from straight away.
I wanted something to be recognised about me; I didn’t know what it was; alarmist readings of Section 28, combined with an institutionalised fear that parents would see the school as a place that turned girls lesbian, meant nobody in authority was likely to tell me. The one teacher who tried fell foul of another dispute far above my head and cleared her portakabin sanctuary that same autumn, 1997.
I needed intervention, unlike most of the other queer and questioning alumnae who read about St Paul’s new policy with complex emotions – how much must have changed – but how much easier it could have been for me – and shared them on the Facebook status of one of the most talented girls I remember from the year below, who had a much worse time of it than me. Even then, it was how the school dealt with what I’d put in front of it that taught me for years to be afraid not just of most of my identity but even of some of the most characteristic things about how I see the world.
Today’s students there will be able to know that, at least once they’re 16, they’ll be able to use the names and pronouns that represent them; they’re much more likely than my generation to know before 16 that recognition of their name or recognition of their pronouns is part of what they need. This is the next century, sang Justine’s boyfriend in that Clockwork Orange song; he didn’t put that in.
There are gaps in the policy, as reported in the press, that I’d like to see filled: why should trans children who know about themselves before 16 have to wait, if recognition would help them now, and when in a supportive environment there’s nothing to lose if they are wrong by changing back again? Why isn’t there a stronger commitment to letting trans boys continue at the same school whatever stage of hormone therapy they’re at, if that’s what they want to do? Could they make a clear commitment that a trans girl, changing school perhaps, would be tested on the same terms as any other prospective Paulina?
Even though I didn’t need to change my pronouns or change my name – the stories of people who did tell me that if I had needed to, surely, I’d have known – the preconditions for a policy like that to exist, inside and outside the school, would still have made today’s St Paul’s unimaginable from the high-backed wooden benches where you sat and stared at black and white marble before the High Mistress called you in for her ultimatum.
I did change my name. I didn’t know it meant that. From the more feminine version of my name I’d been enrolled with, to Catherine, there on my birth certificate in the first place and belonging – I realised while I was pushing past the chaos I’d wrapped around myself – to me. Nothing had to change except people’s habits and a school register (the former by far the most difficult, of course).
Capable of drawing symbolic significance out of the smallest detail, I heard the girl-like ending of a de-facto birth name that didn’t stand for me, the strong confident ending of a consonant in my full name that I could just call older-sounding if anyone, including myself, asked me. There. That would do. It always has. (It wouldn’t have, for the students who need the same affirmation from a different name entirely as I could find by letting myself hear the less gendered sound of Catherine.)
Someone had looked up to me by then, four year groups below. I only found that out when my friend the photographer and her poignant memories set off so many other comments underneath.
In the tutor whose form I was moved into halfway through the term, the history teacher who showed me more to reach towards, the staff advisor to the school newspaper who put me in positions where younger students learned from me, I was coming into contact, finally, with some of the very staff who’d go on to support the next generation of queer students and struggle with senior management to let LGBTQ+ topics become institutionally visible – the groundwork necessary for St Paul’s to join other girls’ schools that, with less media coverage, are trying to show their students who aren’t girls that they belong.
Today’s students, taking our school’s origin myth at its highest value and infusing their feminism with solidarities that never occurred to most white women in my generation at their mid-teens, will have played a large part in obtaining something that even many of us who needed it didn’t know how to say we needed.
News like this, from a school like that, has a serrated edge. It tears something open, all over again, because the joy and even pride of it won’t have to be like that, for them depends on its reflection, it didn’t have to be like that, for me. Even as it rebuilds someone else, it rips through you.
But in seeing that it wasn’t just you, wasn’t just me, wasn’t just her, maybe it rebuilds you a bit more as well.