5 Dec 2014

Becoming Julie by Julie Clarke

Becoming Julie by Julie Clarke
Becoming Julie by Julie Clarke - Fledgling Press

Becoming Julie by Julie Clarke is the story of a struggle against society's defintion of gender, and is an incredible voyage of discovery. 

As most people don't know much about this subject, it is a satisfying voyage of discovery for readers too, and as such is an important work.

Julie Clarke writes in plain English as if she were the girl next door.  Some of her concerns are the workaday worries that many of us have, but other concerns will be new to most.

What is so endearing about the story is that the reader is so far ahead of Julie for much of the action.  For example, Julie doesn't hear the word tranvestite until one evening towards the end of the 1970s, when she is about 20 years old, and when Michael Caine mentions it in a Harry Palmer film. 

Hearing that there are men out there that like to dress as women, Julie rushes to the dictionary to see what the word means, essentially to find out if it describes what she is.  She reads the defintion, and while it comes far from satisfying her, it helps her a little with her desire to be recognised as a woman.

Later, and now into the 1980s, Julie has the same experience with the word transexual, which appears in the newspaper, but to her is like a bolt from the blue.  Again Julie rushes to the dictionary, and while the defintion this time feels closer, she is still puzzled, and far from discovering the reality of her situation.

As you will sense, Julie's story is from a different time and place, and this is why there is nothing at all like it out there. We can all still recognise the fact that we know who we are as people from an early age, but what we don't appreciate is how much of that derives from our relations with others.  We have to be recognised for what we are, and because most of us fit into readily defined social molds this isn't a process we even notice.

But Julie Clarke noticed.  Julie noticed because as a child although she knew that she was a girl  there was no place, either social or linguistic where this could be acknowledged.  This was 1950s and 1960s Scotland, and so what Julie had instead of information on her situation, was at best, teachers recognising she was different, and physically and psychologically abusing her for it. 

Yes, this is true. There are some shocking encounters in Becoming Julie but they are aren't what you would expect, such as the prejudicial violence one might find on the streets, later at night.  That violence is there in the book, sadly, but what hurt Julie Clark much more, and what will hurt you as a reader, is the destructiveness and the negativity heaped upon her in certain cases by doctors and teachers. Not all doctors and teachers of course.  But it is still incredible that people in these positions of trust knew so little that in the case of a couple of teachers, they resorted to cruelty, and in the case of a doctor, simply ignored what Julie was saying.

Julie Clarke's writing style is so good that when these events occur, they are shocking and sad.  Then there are bitter sweet encounters, which have elements of comedy to them, but which still have cheerless outcomes.  The most memorable of these encounters is with the police, when Julie stops her car in a smart area of Bridge of Allan, while putting on make-up in preparation for a trip to Edinburgh.


Freed from the prison of self-consciousness, Julie Clarke writes with generosity.  Becoming Julie almost devises its own journey. Even the briefest look at the issues around Gender Dysphoria would be pretty alarming for most people, and is the apparent absence of this anxiety that makes Becoming Julie such a good read.

I say the absence of this anxiety is apparent, because even though it was certainly there, the writing does not stress it.  Becoming Julie is a most matter of fact and straightforward account, written in such a calm fashion that it achieves a normalcy not usually associated with this subject - another rare achievement.  And yet the subject matter is still immense and challenging.

Gender Dysphoria, a term that first appeared in America in 1980, was not something that could have been comprehended in 1950s and 1960s Scotland.  But Becoming Julie beautifully describes a fundamental unease and dissatisfaction with the biological sex that Julie is born with, and shows the anxiety, depression and restlessness that are common symptoms.  

In Julie's case, we can add a level of self-denial, as for many decades she tried to fight what she was. This is the real meat of the book, the battle of Julie against Julie, as the female side is suppressed, only to rise again and again.

The main problem of growing up with Gender Dysphoria, aside from the body dysphoria itself is the social predicament.  Essentially everyone expects the individual to be and act like a boy or girl, when  inside they know they are a girl or boy.  The battle in Becoming Julie is epic and we find Julie involved in the most ruggedly male of territories, notably the fire service - but nothing can keep this good girl down!

What we learn from Becoming Julie is that children get cues early on from parents about appropriate behavior, and they internalise them.  For example Julie has the message from her parents that it is not OK for her to play with girls' clothes, and she is expected to do “boy” things – even though she does not want to.  What we discover in Becoming Julie is that in certain children, there develops an the idea that there is a part of themselves that must remain hidden.
Julie Clarke author of Becoming Julie

Becoming Julie isn't a book about trans politics, which makes it different from most of the writing on the subject.  At the same time Julie's distance from politics and her immersion in the daily life of her jobs in the fire service and working for Caledonian Macbrayne, as well as life in the communities of Callandar and Coll, demonstrate a much more urgent type of politics - that between ordinary folk in ordinary environments.  

The outcome is that in Becoming Julie we have a book that but is a grace to many groups: to those of us who have experienced rejection, to those of us who wish to belong to society but are not mainstream enough, and to those of us who have made mistakes but still have a strong and gentle heart.

Thank you Julie.