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 colour 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 1950s Britain. An anathema too, in the repressive, sex-loathing, church dominated Ireland in the 1970s. 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, attempted to break the confines of her life as a housewife in Ireland.
At that time, I was a solitary, a loner, uncertain of life, or my place in the universe, or my right to exist. The moment I saw Quentin Crisp as portrayed in this film, a part of me was set free. To me Hurt was Crisp, and his performance in 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. What a delight he was, this despised, effeminate man, walking the street with his head held high.
I thought I knew about oppression. I felt that my psyche was offensive to my family, in particular, my father, and I was perplexed by an incomprehensible self. 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 performance was magnificent. When he showed Mr Crisp being beaten by yobs, I felt heartened to resist the dogma of my peers.
I envied Crisp the clarity of his position in the world, that of Stately Homo. How much simpler it would have been to join the feminist, lesbian or gay rights movements but since I had no strong allegiance to being female, gay or straight it was of no use to protest. Like Crisp, I felt I was resisting 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 makeup, ‘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’s response, ‘male and female created he me‘.
I began to sense the answer to the riddle. Was I too a spirit with no fixed abode? It was heady stuff!
Crisp’s existence represented transcendence, a way to escape the narrow constraints of society. Armed with this knowledge (of Crisp), I could explore the possibility of being myself. At last, I was not alone. John Hurt’s impeccable performance opened my eyes to the issue of transgenderism, and to an aspect of human nature that was well understood in the non-Christian world.