As we brace for 2019 and stack up our resolutions, Broadly is focusing on finding motivation for the hard tasks that await us—like getting out of bed. So, throughout January, we're rolling out Getting Out of Bed, a series of stories about all things related to rest and resilience. Read more here.
My escape was cinematic. As I lay on a couch thinking over what had happened that day, I was swollen with pride and fragile with fear of the unknown I had, quite literally, leaped into. It was a future only made possible because of my much derided choice of school, a co-educational sixth form (or college) in North London.
On Saturday evening in June 2003 I returned home from a night out at my friend’s place. I was 17. She had a house party because her parents were away and I was rebellious enough to take my first ecstasy pill. At some point during the night, as the euphoria coursed through me, I lay on my stomach and tried to fly down the stairs. The memories I have are of me actually flying—I felt like I could fly. There was no comedown the following morning. Beanbags were put in the garden and I, as usual, got my maternal gig on and cooked a fry-up for the guests before I returned to my family home.
My status as the academic golden child was slipping. My unbridled femininity meant that I was put on trial at the dinner table almost nightly. My uncle’s babymother had seen me combing my afro on the bus. I loved how soft my face looked after it had been fluffed out. There was a section of Great Cambridge Road where the tall trees in the park allowed me to use the bus window as a mirror because it had gone dark enough for me to see my glorious reflection. This was considered a crime by my family. The felony was reported to my uncle who then told my dad. Once he was sober, he had a stern sit down chat with me about what black boys didn’t do. I did not have the courage to explain how insignificant being a boy meant to me. Less than smoke. My body may as well have been an apparition.
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If my home were a plantation, I knew exactly what to say to keep the master and mistress happy in the earlier years of their dominion over me. However, as time wore on and I became aware that most of my friends were not truly scared of their parents, I begun to challenge their punishments and keep more secrets. I became proficient at erasing my internet history but they monitored it assiduously nevertheless.
In the years when my father had been away in Africa, my mother and I became a strong team. She made me into the domestic goddess I am because she needed me. I cooked healthy meals inspired by Nigella Lawson and Sophie Grigson. I juiced carrots and celery and beetroots. I lit candles and put citrus slices in drinks. What had once been seen as preciously cute (“Oh, your child is ever so sensitive…”) became worthy of whispering. The black middle class community around us came for her, and so my mother turned on me. She told me that she would rather have a drug addict than a gay son and that I should jump off Archway Bridge.
The storm got louder and louder. My father would bellow in drunken rages: “Get out of my house, you fucking queer! You fucking queer!” In the cafés and pubs of Camden I poured out my sorrows over tearful coffees and Guinesses to my new white bourgeois friends. They were incredulous at my treatment, and they had satellite haven homes across North London where I could get some respite from the hurricane that threatened to consume me whole. My parents, so suspicious of these exotic white saviors, spoke of how college was changing me in ways they did not like. My white friends were accused of indoctrinating me with their gay agenda. The truth was that my parents felt me becoming free.
I returned home to my mother the evening after I discovered I could fly. She had a notepad with bullet points on the dining room table. Ever the administrator, she listed the feminine offences that needed to stop. The gender police of friends and family had informed the poor thing what was truly wrong with the essence of my being, and she had been sent to crush my spirit into a box that felt appropriately manly. I was informed that my belongings had been burnt in my absence. I had every copy of Glamour from its first publication: the one with Kate Winslet on the cover, even the one with Natalie Imbruglia that I had been brave enough to carry through the secondary school playground with my bottle of Volvic water and aloe vera Vaseline tin. My tea tree facial wash from The Body Shop; even the queer magazines I had hidden behind the stacks of fashion publications—they had all been burnt.
A fire was lit to roaring in the island that was my heart. I tried to throw my belongings in a black bag but she fought me. She called my father at the pub and told him to come home. She was calling my drunk father home from the pub! My community wanted me dead. My poor sister sat on the living room couch eating baked beans and cheese, trying desperately to watch television through tearful helplessness. Five years younger than me with no knowledge of how to help a sibling in a cyclone. The noise just getting louder and louder and louder. Both of us were crying. My sister asked me: “But what are you gonna do? Where are you gonna go?” I had no answer.
My mother had blocked and chained the front door, so I jumped out of the narrow living room window in a panic and ran for my life, wearing an orange T-shirt and jeans and no shoes on my feet. I dashed across Great Cambridge Road, away from the beaten tracks where I would be easily found. At a distant bus stop I begged the driver of the 329 bus to Wood Green to let me on, channeling Tina Turner on her escape from Ike in What’s Love Got to Do With It. I don’t recall the words I used, but I was grateful for that scene’s inspiration. I believed that if I could just identify the people who might be nice enough to give me mercy, I could make it. At Wood Green tube I skidaddled behind someone unsuspecting and got to Finsbury Park. From there, I walked to my friend’s house in Tufnell Park. He promised me he would help me find a way to live.
For years I had kept my debilitating panic attacks hidden. I would wake up in the middle of the night paralyzed and unable to breathe. Insomnia just became a way of life. I would watch the the Open University on BBC2 and Channel 4 programming in the early morning, learning French from shows that depicted ways of life not yet shown to me.
As I lay my head down on my friend’s sofa in Tufnell Park that night, I knew I could make it. It was quiet—finally quiet enough for me to sleep. The bullying had stopped and I could start the process of blossoming. I didn’t have the confidence to begin my transition yet because every source of scant information I received told me that the life of a transgender woman was one not worth living. But looking back, contemplating my future in the filigree of the ceiling, an assured sense of calm came over me. I was safe in the knowledge that I was and always will be a North London girl.