This is the next century: my old school just launched a gender identity policy and this is how it feels

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 launched a policy 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 Teen Vogue generation (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, all switchback metre and galloping bells. 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.


The cold never bothered me anyway: a queer gaze and twenty years of screen witchcraft meet ‘Flower In The Snow’

The cold never bothered me anyway: a queer gaze and twenty years of screen witchcraft meet ‘Flower In The Snow’

Slovenia, a dependable but rarely distinctive contributor to the Eurovision spectacle, has given me more than usual to think about performance with over the first weekend of selecting its entry for this year’s contest in Kiev: firstly with this pop-opera Kraftwerk or pop-opera Laibach production, playing some very mid-2010s games around dystopian uniforms and propaganda, which didn’t progress past the first semi-final, and then, well, this.

‘Flower In The Snow’ taps into a gothic, fairytale aesthetic which Slovenia already packaged successfully for Eurovision in 2014, in Tinkara Kovač’s flute-wielding ‘Round And Round‘,  and on a very different sized stage for the actress Tanja Ribič in 1997 – so long ago that Ribič’s 19-year-old daughter was another competitor in the Slovenian Eurovision heats this year.

What Nuška Drašček’s performance does is even more directly bring to mind – or letting you think it brings to mind, which for the viewer amounts to the same thing – the tropes of constraint, emotional release, and self-discovery through magic which have crackled out of female-centric popular culture from The Craft to Frozen, not unlike the way that one of Eurovision’s most iconic winners, Ruslana, could ground her own performance in everything a viewer might have known and felt about Xena: Warrior Princess.

Both of which when seen through the right lens are, in their own way – we’ll get on to Ruslana here in due course – full of the potential to be powerfully and thrillingly queer.

I’d like to be writing this in May, explaining why ‘Flower In The Snow’ ought to be a contender to win in Kiev, but Eurovision national finals are thankless things and there’s a seven-to-eight chance Slovenia will pick what could be anything from a quite cobbled together pub-band song, to a man shooting digital and physical flame around the stage in a Superdry t-shirt (which rather takes the edge off his shooting flame around the stage).

The growing intensity, soaring choruses and one-verse-to-another character arc of ‘Flower In The Snow’ are straight from musical theatre and work the same way, with Drašček’s high-collared black outfit guiding the imagination towards the gothic, as the musical sub-genre Idina Menzel has made her own: what can only be described as witches’ coming-out songs.

‘Defying Gravity’, the showstopper for Wicked‘s misunderstood Wicked Witch of the West, and ‘Let It Go’, the very pole of the commercial pack-ice that is Frozen, are two aspects of the same archetype: the woman accepting that the qualities which put her on the margins of society aren’t just traits to fear or marks to hide but powers, gifts, even if a society that fears them can never understand them, especially if a society that fears them can never understand them: and so why not climb on the broomstick, build the ice palace, become what the pointed hat or wind-machine hair already held out to you, what generations of artists and folklorists have already shown is wrapped up in the word witch.

I can’t not be what you say I am; therefore I’ll be so much like that as to be fearsome.

Making more public the self you are – the one you hope you might be, that you’re afraid you might be – after years of conceal-don’t-feel, years of accepting-limits-cause-someone-says-they’re-so, is a crossing of boundaries through which millions of listeners have heard the last lines of ‘Let It Go’:

Here I stand, in the light of day
Let the storm rage on
The cold never bothered me anyway

‘Conceal, don’t feel, don’t let them know – well, now they know’: no wonder there are whole icebergs of the internet devoted to queering Elsa.

There’s a vulnerability, a lostness, a resilience, but also a frozenness, and inescapably therefore a Frozen-ness, to the image of a flower in the snow. Drašček’s first line – ‘Lost in the streets, the night is cold’ – primes the atmosphere, with a cloud of other standards like ‘On My Own’ or ‘Memory’ just out of sight, and the chorus – ‘Hit me in my cold heart, I just need a jump-start / Feel the silent pain in these loveless veins’ – is deep in Menzel territory even before the second verse echoes both anthems at once:

Now I’m not afraid of who I am
Cause I’ve found a way to change the plan
Now that I let it go, it heals my wounds and heals my soul

Now I’m not afraid of who I am: as ready as anything on Broadway to be queered, in defiance of forces as inexorable as temperature or, well, gravity, and to do the same work that queer audiences have made of every other diva musical; a fantasy of power through self-recognition, imaginable through an act of self-recognition in itself, an identification between listener and character, that is happening right now; all the more so when you can project something of yourself into the character on screen and maybe just maybe take it back inside.

With the second half of the chorus – ‘Throw me out a lifeline, let me see the light shine / And just watch me grow, like a flower in the snow’ – we have, just like Conchita Wurst and her lyricists managed with ‘Rise Like A Phoenix‘, an arc of emotional sincerity and a storyline, even if we’re only seeing it at the beginning. (It’s no surprise at all to find out that, four years ago, Drašček recorded the Slovenian translation of ‘Let It Go’.)

The damaged sorceress who finds redemption through painfully opening herself up to human contact again isn’t just Elsa’s story, but a trope of its own in today’s retellings. Not least for Lana Parrilla’s Regina (aka the Evil Queen of Snow White) who makes her own contribution to fairytale’s high-collared gown collection as one of the stars of Once Upon a Time:

You discover your desires aren’t what they were expected to be, probably long before you get to find out what they are; and along the way there are so many missteps and misrecognitions, so many reasons not even to try again because the costs were so high that last time, when you got it wrong – that no wonder queer viewers, in particular, are drawn to characters like these.

Drašček, as a performer, understands the bodily language of screen witchery. Holding a commanding hand to camera, keeping eye contact with the lens as it spins round, grasping the air just where the producer would CGI an orb of mana or a fireball: the choreography of magic from Buffy‘s Willow to Elsa.

Meanwhile, with the help of her make-up artist Emperatrizz, she’s by accident or design very good at recreating something else: the kohl-rimmed glare and out-of-control grin of the most emblematic character from 1996’s ‘year of the teen witch‘, Fairuza Balk’s Nancy in The Craft.

I came late to The Craft, like most things at that time. When I did see it, I was already into my own, quite necessary, phase of locking myself back in from the thrill of going too far – well, now they know… – that I resisted taking it as one of my stories, the way so many women have who as teenagers in and around 1996 saw in the revenge fantasies of Sarah, Rochelle, Bonnie and Nancy allegories or direct reflections of their own isolation. It didn’t have to be queerness; but it often was.

The witch, the sorceress, the evil queen, in nineties-noughties-nowties popular culture – from Nancy to Elsa, Elphaba to Regina – is a woman who turns her outsider position and the reason for it into the very basis of her power, her glamour and her image: one of the strongest, surely, of the secret chords, the codes you hear to recognise yourself.

I can’t say whether or not we’re meant to see any of this in ‘Flower In The Snow’ (although, if we’re talking secret chords, how much more exciting it would be if we were, right down to Drašček’s very last wide smile before the camera pans away).

The performance, as always with spectatorship, becomes the genealogy it becomes in this viewing because of everything else I’ve seen, and what those meant. The craft of a performance, how Ruslana harnesses Xena or Conchita harnesses Bassey/Bond or Nina Sublatti – the benchmark for digitally-enhanced Eurovision gothic – harnesses the black-feathered antagonist of a dozen video games, is in how voice and movement and language and special-effects and design put enough out there so that as viewers we meet them halfway, and that space in between is where meaning happens.

It’s a space, for this performance where queer women, in particular, have something to put in, whether it was meant for us or not.

Hardly anyone outside Slovenia might even see it. It’s happened before; last year’s producers gave Anja Baš’s ‘What If’ an alter-ego interpretive dance routine that, now I’m so used to filling in the blanks and starting to write the words that bridge them, comes to me on queer autopilot. (I mean, look at that.)

It lost quite convincingly to a reasonable reconstruction of pre-1989-era Taylor Swift.

‘Flower In The Snow’ might or might not have been designed as a queer performance (at least one of Drašček’s team, on the other hand, is queer: Emperatrizz, who performed at Eurovision fifteen years ago as one of the drag trio Sestre); but the aesthetics of gothicness and enchantment, freezing and unfreezing, that through its images probably convey at least something of the Menzel anthems to almost anyone carry enough queer meanings that they can crystallise as soon as they are seen.