Jo Clifford is a writer and actor whose body of work extends to over 70 produced plays, films and radio plays. This year she is reviving, and playing the title role in, her 2009 play, The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven. Grace Knight popped in for a cup of tea in her pretty, book-laden house on the waterfront to discuss trans liberation, the art of writing, and discovering your true vocation at the age of 64.
There were massive protests about it. I was very traumatised by the protests and by the storm of hatred that came down on me on the web, but I've always been meaning to bring it back.
The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven is a one woman show in which Clifford herself takes on the role of Jesus, interpreted here as a trans woman. It's a gentle, affectionate piece of story telling that takes the stories of the New Testament as its starting point.
We began by discussing the creative origins of Jesus, Queen of Heaven.
“In 2003 I did a show called God's new frock, which was all about the God of the Old Testament. I'd done a lot of research about the origins of patriarchy and matriarchy and the fact that before we worshipped, in the West, a great big god in the sky, we worshipped the mother earth, and that there was a very serious, and very violent, and very prolonged attempt to suppress mother worship. Certain books of the Old Testament have probably emerged from that struggle. And so one reason why the God of the Old Testament is such a grumpy male is because he's suppressing his feminine side.
“And I, you know, I was trying to understand the hostility that I had suffered all my life and the hostility in general that transgendered people suffer which seems to come largely from religious origins and I want to see, 'Where did that come from? What justified it?' And then that discovery that god, Yahweh, had probably been involved in suppressing his femininity, there was a parallel between that and what happened to me when I was adolescent which was in, well, way back in the early 60s.
“So the show told the two stories: told God's story, then it told my story in parallel, and I performed it. It was the very first time I'd performed a substantial show in public, and it was a big coming out for me. And then all sorts of things happened. The show did very well. I performed it in the Tron, and I performed it in the Traverse; it sold out. But I couldn't do anything with it. You know, life intervened and actually I'd forgotten all about it until the Playwrights Studio in Glasgow sent the script to a company in Florence, and they loved it, and they translated it into Italian, and somebody performed it in Italy, and I was flown across to see it. And it was amazing. Italian audiences just loved that show, they really took to it. It went on a tour round Italy and it was beautifully performed and I thought, wow, I was onto something. So I decided that I would write a sequel about the New Testament.
We talked a little about Clifford's decision to bring the show back after the explosive response it received when it was first staged five years ago.
“There were massive protests about it. I was very traumatised by the protests and by the storm of hatred that came down on me on the web, but I've always been meaning to bring it back. I was originally invited to perform it at the Just Festival in St. John's Chruch. But then when the script was shown to their committee they were pretty outraged by it, and so they said, 'No, we cannot accept this as part of our festival.' I was very cross, actually, and I thought, 'I've got to find somewhere else to do it.'
“It seems all the more important now to just make a very strong statement about our rights and to affirm our rights, but also in general, I think, to try to light a little light, to try to say something positive about the world and human solidarity. I think it's important, I think it matters, and I realised that if I didn't do it, I would never forgive myself. It was just one of these things that had to be done no matter what, really.”
I asked her why.
“Well, there's lots of reasons for that, I think. When I was a boy, I discovered theatre through acting. You know, I happened to be offered parts in the school plays, and I was at Clifton College in Bristol, which was a terrible school in those days. I felt wretched there. I was very frightened, I was bullied, I didn't fit in, I wasn't good at sports. It was a horrible place for me to be. But the minute I went into the rehearsal room, I felt at home. I had no idea what I was doing, really, but I felt happy. I felt I had a place in the world.
“The difficulty was that I was asked to play girls' parts, and of course in one sense that was fantastic because I could explore that part of myself in a way that was acceptable, but by the time I was 15 I realised that actually I wanted to be a girl.
"In those days, words like transgendered didn't even exist. I mean, there was nothing. To want to be a girl was probably the worst, most shameful thing that a boy could possibly want, and I felt I was really sick, and wrong, and diseased, and that I had to hide this because if people understood who I was, they would hate me. And the only thing I could do was try to be normal. And so theatre became a place of shame and fear for me.
“Really recently, have I begun to understand that, probably, my real vocation was as a performer. And that's what I discovered all those years ago, and that's what was blocked. And so, you know, I'm 64 now, so it obviously becomes incredibly important to explore that and express that before I die.
“Also, there is no tradition of transgender performers. There's been no exploration done in literature or in drama, and it is so important. Because when I grew up, the only information I had about trans people were of, well, we were grotesques, we were the pantomime dame, we were the laughing stock, objects of ridicule, or else sometimes occasionally when somebody wanted, in a film usually, wanted to get across the idea that a man was really, really sick, and really depraved and really bad, really evil, they put him in a dress. It's a terrible thing if you don't see yourself portrayed in art."
I ask her about her own gender identity.
“One of the difficulties in the Western world's idea of gender is that we insist that there is only men, and that there is only women, and actually this is inaccurate. There are more than two genders, and the wisest societies have understood this. Other societies understand that there are three, four, five, six, seven genders.
“For a very long time, when I was bringing up my children and my wife was still alive, I was trying to live as a third gender man. As a man who appreciated and expressed his femaleness, but it just became impossible, particularly after my wife died, because I still was being identified as a man and I wasn't a man. Which is why I had to transition.
“In this world, in this society, the way things are structured now, I have to identify myself as a woman, but actually I'm not a woman, I'm a third gender person. And I know many trans women see themselves very differently. They say, 'No, we're women and don't you dare say otherwise', so, you know, this is not a prescriptive thing, this is just the way I identify myself. And, well, there we are. It suits me.”
The conversation turned back to the show, and I asked whether it was autobiographical.
“You have to start with yourself. I think because I was performing it myself, I didn't include any miracles because I can't do miracles, so I just wanted to limit it to what was possible for me to truthfully say. But the result is always autobiographical and if you were to look through every one of my plays you would find that they were about me or about my family.
“I remember my elder daughter coming up to me after the opening night of Anna Karenina which was on at the Lyceum and obviously that's a play about a 19th century aristocratic Russian family, not about us at all, and she said, 'Dad! You've put us on stage!' And she was right, I had. You know, I hadn't meant to, but I had. So there will be a lot of me in Jesus. But it's just instinctive and it's imaginative and it's emotional. There's nothing organised about it.
I asked whether her experience of having lived as both a man and as a woman have fed into her work.
“Well, I think in general it's been incredibly important for me as an artist to have that amazing width of experience. It's just astonishing. It's a real gift. It's one of the ways in which it's been fabulous being trans. Yes, so it is important. It sometimes seems to me that what I write is important. The blog is important, the plays I write, the words are important, but actually my presence is important.
“I mean, when I speak in public, probably for some people in the room it will be the first time that they've encountered an openly trans woman in the flesh. And I think that's quite a powerful thing to happen, actually, without me having to do anything else, almost. I do think that trans actors, trans performers bring a quality to what we're doing that you can't get otherwise. There are more ways of being human than being male and being female, and I think that's an important thing to try and get across. And you don't get it across by saying anything, but you get it across by just being.
“I am very proud to be a father, and to be a grandmother, that's just a very wonderful thing. That's a huge privilege. And also I'm very proud of [my previous identity as] John. I'm very proud of what I did as John. I know many trans women are really disgusted by their previous male selves, but for me, who I was then and what I did is something to celebrate.”