I grew up surrounded by memories of people who seemed braver than I could ever be. The walls of Bedford School’s chapel and memorial hall were covered in the names of young men who died in two world wars. Among them were five Victoria Cross citations, which spoke of reckless courage. It will come as no surprise that I tried to enlist as an ordinary solider shortly after the Falklands War, then applied for officer training. The army decided they could do without me, but four years in the Territorial Army gave me a sense of what might have been required of me.
None of that was courage. I was intent on self-annihilation because I didn’t want to pretend any more. I spent my time at school as firmly wedged in the closet as I could possibly make myself, and the only way out of there seemed to be in a box.
When I came out to friends, family, clients and colleagues as transgender, and transitioned in 2010, many people told me how brave I was. I have half a million words in a blog from those times, and there was often a lot of being scared shitless. Walking down Tottenham Court Road as my self for the first time, in no way ‘passing’ but with my head up and smiling, I shook uncontrollably. But I wasn’t brave, because I did what I had to. Some of the VC citations told a similar story. The recipients said that they had reacted to the situation, doing what came to them instinctively because it just had to be done. I came out and transitioned because I might otherwise have died.
It has left me with a problem. I now have very little fear. I stood up to a sociopath employer when she tried to deny my teaching colleagues a decent pension. I organised a union-backed campaign to inform my fellow educators. The head responded by trying to frighten me. I didn’t back down and I was summarily sacked on the last day of my year-long probation period. She’s been found out now, and I’ve moved on. But I have to check myself and think about the consequences for others of my recklessness.
In 2007, I was involved in a car crash. While waiting to make a right turn into a drive, I looked in my rear view mirror and saw a car coming around the bend behind me at considerable speed. Time slowed down. I thought of my daughter beside me. I remembered that the best way to avoid whiplash injuries was to be relaxed. I calculated that her shock at the crash would be less of a problem than any neck injuries. And I watched the car hit us, saying nothing. The impact pushed us many metres down the road. Once I’d checked that my daughter was physically okay, I got out of the car. The other driver was terribly upset, as his car was crumpled and he and his young son had been hit by their airbags. “Look after your son,” I told him, “we’re fine.”
This wasn’t courage. It was what the situation required.
I find Ellen McArthur inspiring. I watched the coverage of her single-handed circumnavigation and heard her speak at a dinner, awkward in her long dress and in the well-oiled company of members of the Royal Ocean Racing Club. What she said about courage – and about children with cancer – stays with me.
“People used to say to me after I raced around the world, ‘God you’re so brave to do that. You’re so courageous’. I’m not. I chose to do that. It’s not brave or courageous. It’s probably stupid. But I was following my dream. I wanted it. These kids didn’t choose this. Yet they can go through it with such big smiles on their faces and such passion for life. That’s what true courage is. They’ve been a massive inspiration to me.”
I’d like to remember our friend’s son, Sam, who died aged 10. Though free from the leukaemia that had dogged his earlier childhood, he developed an inoperable brain tumour. Towards the end, while lying in his hospital bed, he opened his eyes from sleep and smiled at his parents. They asked him why he was smiling. “Because I don’t want you to be sad,” he replied. That is courage.
I wish I had been braver at school. I wish I’d stood up for a fellow pupil when he was homophobically bullied to the point where he left, or for the exchange students who were tormented for merely being foreign. But that’s history.
Now it’s payback time, for that scared child forty-five years ago. I am inspired by the bravery of some of the pupils I teach, standing up for what is right, confronting their terror on high ropes or putting themselves into situations such as speaking in assembly, where they are visibly frightened. I wish I’d had that courage. I am a diversity role model, facilitating and speaking at workshops in primary schools. It’s easy for me; I hope that our workshops give some of these young people the courage to be themselves and to stick up for one another now.
Because courage is what you do by choice when everything is telling you not to, and when you could so easily do and say nothing.