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‘I didn’t have the easiest upbringing. As an effeminate, non-binary, mixed-race teen growing up in a council house in Grimsby in 1959, I was subjected to racist and homophobic insults. I longed to escape.
My family tried to knock the “queer” out of me. When I was 14, my mum split my head open into three pieces, and I was taken into a care home. I can still recall how isolating it was – like having the wind blow a hole through your stomach.
Just before I turned 18, I moved to a bedsit in Didsbury, Manchester. There were still a few Working Men’s Clubs left where I could work as a tribute act. I soon became known as the Shirley Bassey of the North! I even met Mark E Smith of The Fall – I supported them at shows and appeared in music videos.
I always dreamt of moving to the Big Smoke, and in 1980, I moved to a squat in Clapton Pond. Unfortunately, a lot of the National Front called that area home as well. I would often dress androgynously, with pink sequinned tops, and acid green lycra trousers. Unsurprisingly, the skinheads would scream atrocities.
One night, they chased us out of our squat, kicking doors down and throwing Molotov cocktails. We grabbed everything we could, and ran to Notting Hill as the riots unfolded.
‘There was no one like me at the time. They didn’t have brown camp people on the telly’
I stayed there for four and a half years. One of my neighbours was Keith Allen, and he invited me to be part of Channel 4’s first youth programme. Later, I starred on “The Comic Strip Presents”. There was no one like me on TV at the time: they didn’t have brown camp people on the telly.
In 1986, I tracked down music producer Pete Waterman and rapped about surrendering your gender identity. He fell to the floor laughing, but we ended up collaborating on my worldwide hit, “Pistol in My Pocket”. When I appeared in the movie “Eat the Rich” the following year, I told the director I didn’t want any gender pronouns – he thought it was a bit ahead of the times. My fame skyrocketed. People would come up to me waving a cigarette packet, and ask me to sign it.
Diana Ross saw the film and told Michael Jackson about it. Cher told me that she really enjoyed it. Even so, I faced death threats. It was difficult – I realised how many people hated me for being me.
‘Anyone who might be struggling with their gender identity – you were born a winner’
I had a breakdown and left London to recalibrate. But in 1991, I released another hit, “Human Nature” with Gary Clail. Despite my successes, my gender was still misunderstood. The press referred to me as “transsexual”, which was frustrating. I didn’t identify that way at all.
It’s rewarding to see how trans rights have progressed over the last decade, but the fight isn’t over. There’s still so much prejudice within the LGBTQ+ community. The level of transphobia–in the very place where people are meant to be loved and protected – is appalling.
It feels overwhelming to look back at my violent childhood after being hailed as a gender-fluid LGBTQ+ icon. Anyone who might be struggling with their gender identity – you were born a winner. Never lose sight of that.’
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