There are moments in the life of the mind when a door slips open, a light shines through, and however briefly, it’s enough to change the tone of your existence forever. I was 13 or 14 years old when I saw John Hurt portraying Quentin Crisp in the biographical film, ‘The Naked Civil Servant’. I remember being blown away by Hurt’s performance, and by the existence of Crisp, an anathema in the austere, homo-criminalising atmosphere of 1950’s Britain. An anathema too, in the repressive, sex-loathing, church dominated Ireland in the 1970’s. It’s a wonder that this clever, poignant film about Crisp’s extraordinary crusade was suffered to be broadcast on the Irish airwaves. I remember watching it with my mother, who, when my father wasn’t paying attention, snuck a glimpse at subject matter that went beyond the narrow, confines of our world. At that time, I was going through my troubled teenage phase. Solitary, a loner, uncertain of my position in life, my place in the family, my right to exist, full stop. The moment I saw Quentin Crisp portrayed in this film, I identified with all that he represented. To me Hurt was Crisp, and it came as something of a surprise, years later to find out that the ‘real’ Quentin Crisp was quite a different fellow, living in New York. The film acted as the touchstone of my inner world – I adored Crisp’s lonely hauteur, admired his glamour and his ability to transcend victimisation using his wit, and his arrogance. He was all that I hoped I could become in the world, and what a delight he was, this despised, effeminate man, walking the street with his head held high.
I too was oppressed. My father was a damaged person, and he seemed to regard me as a threat. I knew that my very psyche offended him. Naturally, I was resistant to my father’s chauvinistic attitude – occasionally battled against by my beleaguered mother – that females are unworthy, and inferior to males. But it wasn’t just tribal patriarchy that I was facing. I was also perplexed by my own incomprehensible nature. Intuitively, I knew myself to be what the native American people wisely refer to as ‘two-spirited’, psychically allied to male and female genders, and often the target of both.
How I understood when Hurt (as Crisp) said to the judge in his defence against solicitation, ‘I suppose my very existence is a form of importuning, otherwise I am not guilty as charged’. It was exactly what I felt back then, a sense of guilt by virtue of my existence.
Hurt’s portrayal of Crisp is magnificent. When his Crisp was being beaten by yobs, I felt heartened by his defiant attitude, because alone in my mind, (since to voice a difference of opinion meant near violence) I resisted the dogma of my parents and siblings, I couldn’t accept a role of second-class citizen, or accept the psychological oppression that I knew lay ahead.
I envied Crisp the clarity of his position in the world, that of stately homo. How much simpler it would have been to fight an obvious oppressor. If I could have joined the feminist, lesbian or gay rights movements I would have gladly done so. Impossible, since I had no strong allegiance to being female, gay or straight. Instead, I was fighting the oppressive notion of a single, well defined self.
Then there was Crisp, or rather Hurt as Crisp, making up in front of the mirror, berated by his male lover for using too much make-up, ‘look at actresses, they get these terrible rough skins with all the stuff they have to put on’. Later, when attempting to join the army, Crisp is confronted by the army psychiatrist who quotes the bible, ‘male and female created he them’. Crisp responds, ‘male and female created he me‘.
I began to sense the answer to the riddle. Could it be that I too was such a being? A person whose queer attitude her surroundings, a spirt with no fixed abode? It was heady stuff, and I began to feel like I belonged in the world.
Hurt’s brilliant performance provided the seed of transcendence, a way to escape the narrow constraints of Irish Catholicism. Armed with this knowledge (of Crisp), I could explore new dimensions, be infected with ideas and imaginings that were new and exciting. At last, I was not alone. But it was Hurt’s impeccable performance that opened my eyes to the issue of transgenderism, and to my own non-binary nature, a type of nature that had been well understood, and even revered by the native Americans, prior to Christian evangelism.
Rest in peace John Hurt, one of the world’s most gifted actors and communicators. Thank you for opening my eyes.