Jo Clifford

LGBT History Month: Jo Clifford

Scottish PEN is pleased to mark the beginning of LGBT History Month by sharing a blog by playwright and member, Jo Clifford.

February 1, 2022

Scottish PEN is pleased to mark the beginning of LGBT History Month by sharing a blog by playwright, Jo Clifford. The theme of ‘Blurring Borders: A World in Motion’ has been set by LGBT Youth Scotland for this year’s activities. You can learn more on the LGBT History Month website.

Blurring Borders: A World in Motion

When I was eighteen years old and trying to live as a man, I had what I thought was a terrible and shameful secret.

I was supposed to be a man and so desperately wanted to dress as a woman. I did everything I could to suppress this desire, just as I suppressed the terrifying and yet ridiculous thought that I might actually be a woman.

This was only fifty years ago, and a different world: so different it feels very hard to convey the depths of my fear and shame. But I do remember distinctly feeling that if anyone knew my secret I would die of it.

I had no words to describe my suffering, and as far as I could tell there was no-one else in the world who shared it.

The kind of life I live now was utterly beyond the scope of my imagination; and so the fact that I can now live and travel openly as a woman fills me with gratitude and with wonder.

I feel amazingly fortunate to be living here in Scotland, in one of the (still comparatively few) countries in the world where my identity is protected by law.

A quick scroll through ILGA’s Trans Legal Mapping Report reveals just how many countries in the world still criminalise us and where our existence remains fraught with danger.

Thirteen years ago, in 2009, I wrote and performed a play which imagined Jesus returning to earth right now as a trans woman.

By that time, the volume of abuse I received just for walking down the street had appreciably diminished, but it didn’t feel especially safe to be a trans woman.

I was still astonished by the volume of hatred the play provoked – from daily demonstrations in the street outside the theatre, mockery and scorn from the tabloid press, thunderous condemnation from traditional church leaders, and hundreds of thousands of hostile and hate filled comments on the world wide web.

Ever since then, and wherever it’s performed, the play has been a kind of barometer of transphobia.

To judge from a recent article in Fox News, transphobia levels are falling. It contained all the usual tropes – that the play says Jesus was trans (false) and that I am an ex bus conductor (true) – and was designed, as they all are, as click bait to provoke outrage.

It failed. It’s true the hatred I received was vehement – transphobes generally call the play “disgusting” and now routinely called it “beyond disgusting” – but there was far less of it than before.

The article was inspired by an exhibition in Frankfurt’s Bible Museum, which has produced a German translation and performance by Brix Schaumberg, a trans man; and it’s being shown to church youth groups, student teachers, confirmation candidates, and in schools…

Meanwhile in Brazil, where Renata Carvalho toured the play both to wild adulation and death threats and abuse that were so horrendous that PEN International expressed public concern for her safety, she has now used the play’s fame and notoriety to improve the standing of trans performers in her own country and become an acclaimed and award winning star of theatre, TV, and film.

The Australian production has been named one of the ten best production of 2021; and I’m intensely curious to see what happens with thes year’s productions in Swedish and Icelandic.

The haters remain everywhere, and it’s especially sad to see them so vociferously campaigning here in Scotland to reverse the tide and undermine our basic human rights.

But the changes I have lived through in my lifetime make me sure they will fail. I’m with Queen Jesus when she says of them:

“Hatred is the only thing they have. And it doesn’t amount to much. And they will lose it in the end.

For no matter what they say or what they do they cannot undo the change that is happening. And one day we will all be free.”

Jo Clifford

Renata Carvalho & Jo Clifford, in The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven 2019
Tiu Makkonen

Scottish PEN would like to thank Jo for allowing Scottish PEN to include the header and footer images used in this blog. Please visit the website to learn more about the play.

If you are a member writer and would like to contribute a blog to our LGBT History Month series, please contact us at

TAGS: freedom of expression writer