The black-and-gold kimono. The blue eye shadow and nails. The wedges suited to the life of an “action transvestite.” Anyone who saw comic and polymath Eddie Izzard’s seminal 1999 special Dress to Kill will remember the insouciance with which Izzard wore his sleek show costume. To him, talking history, philosophy, language, and carrying on in surreal little sketches about the Church of England was a bit more important than explaining his garment and its attendant trappings. Eventually, he gave the crowd an offhanded primer about being a straight man with “male tomboy” tendencies: It’s about “running, jumping, climbing trees, putting on makeup when you’re up there.” But confident and casual as Izzard may be onstage, he had to find his footing when first learning how to perform his gender in the public eye. In this excerpt — presented in both audio form and text — from Izzard’s new book Believe Me: A Memoir of Love, Death, and Jazz Chickens, the comic recalls an earlier, less assured time.
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“MY FIRST DAY OUT”
I’d been going to a Transvestite / Transsexual Help Group for about two months before I actually left my flat wearing makeup and a dress. At the help group I had been talking to a young lesbian woman I liked and I had thought, Hey, can I have a relationship with a lesbian woman? Does that work?
But at that point of my sexuality-and-confidence-advancement mission, I wasn’t quite up for pursuing a relationship. So instead I just asked her, “Will you come with me and just accompany me the first time I go out wearing makeup and a dress?”
Luckily she said yes, so we agreed to meet somewhere in town for tea or coffee and have a day in the center of London.
I knew I could get out of the house in a dress because I was living with five medical students and I was familiar enough with their schedules to know when they wouldn’t be home. Getting ready and leaving when no one was there didn’t seem too difficult.
Getting back in the house without being noticed would be the challenge.
So I made a plan to go to the ladies’ loos on Highbury Fields to change my clothes before returning home.
Most of what I remember about my first day walking around outside in makeup and a dress was fear. The fear of being stared at, which I knew I would be. This was partly because I wasn’t that good at applying makeup. I’d bought a book about how to do it and then tried to teach myself, but I didn’t have older sisters to practice with, or on.
So I went out and hung out with my friend from the help group, and I made it through. Until it was time to go back home.
I had a little bag I’d brought with me with my other clothing to change back into. So at the end of the afternoon, I came back on the Underground to Highbury Corner in Islington and went to the ladies’ loos as planned. I’d expected to go in, quickly change my clothes, wipe off my makeup, then slip back out in boy mode so I could go home with no one the wiser.
What I wasn’t expecting in the ladies’ loos at about three o’clock in the afternoon were three teenage girls smoking cigarettes. They were probably just skipping school. So there they were, smoking cigarettes, while I was just trying to find a stall, change clothes, and get out of there.
But the first cubicle I went into didn’t have a lock.
Actually, it’s the kind of public loo where it’s surprising that they’ve even got doors. And I’m sure the men’s loos were even worse than the women’s.
I thought, Oh shit, I cannot change in this loo and be constantly trying to hold my hand against the door.
So I decided to find another stall.
I opened the door of the stall I was in and zipped across the middle passageway to the stall opposite.
I closed that door. It didn’t have a lock, either.
I thought, Oh crap. I’ve got to try for another one now.
So I went across a third time, and by that time these girls were quite obviously whispering about me: “Who is that? What are they doing? Is that a he or a she?”
I could hear the whispering going on. In the third cubicle there was a lock. So I locked the door and quickly managed to change my clothes and wipe the makeup off my face, not using the handy makeup wipes that you can buy today, but probably with liquid makeup remover or something else incredibly inconvenient.
Finally, the dress was off, the heels were off, the makeup was off, and jeans and flat shoes were back on. Now I had to make it out quickly before the girls could react.
But that was impossible.
The girls were ready to act. They were just waiting for me. And when I finally came out of the cubicle, they shouted, “Hey, mate! Hey, mister! Why are you wearing makeup? Why are you dressed as a woman?”
I was out the door, heading back toward home, but they were following me. “Hey, why are you dressed as a woman?” They were still following me across Highbury Fields, which was when I thought, Don’t go home, they’ll know where you live, you’ll never hear the end of it.
So I was heading away from home, walking and walking and walking, around Highbury Corner, down Canonbury Road, while they continued to shout at me. Finally, I thought: Screw this. They’re just going to shout at me forever. Let’s confront this. So I stopped and I turned around to face my teenage inquisitors.
I shouted back, “You want to know why I’m wearing a dress? I’ll tell you why.”
But before I could say anything else, the girls just screamed and ran off in the other direction. I was stunned. Wow. That wasn’t as hard as I thought.
I think that was the first time I was overtly intimidated because of my sexuality.
You assume older people intimidate younger people, but those three thirteen-year-old girls had power over a twenty-three-year-old man.
Maybe they turned out to be wonderful human beings. Or maybe they all now live in a tree. Whatever.
I learned something that day when those girls ran off: If you confront aggression—Sometimes just standing your ground or even with cheeriness and politeness—sometimes you can shut it down. It’s not a perfect science, but it feels better than being scared. I also learned that you could feel empowered by facing people down. They were only thirteen or fourteen, but the turning around and saying, “All right, I’ll tell you,” felt almost like a second coming out because I had to say, “Okay, you want to put me in a corner? I’ll face this down as opposed to screaming and running.” Which I always thought I might do. But I didn’t scream and run—in the end, they did.
Excerpted from Believe Me: A Memoir of Love, Death, and Jazz Chickens by Eddie Izzard. Published by arrangement with Blue Rider Press, a member of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2017 by Eddie Izzard.