The Savile Club is one of the older London clubs, founded in 1868, and housed in 69 Brook Street, Mayfair, since 1927. And it is all-male. No wonder London clubland was recently rocked by sensational news about the Savile. A middle-aged member of the club is in transition to become a woman. And, in an unprecedented move, the club decided that the member could stay on, on the grounds she had initially joined as a man. And now the Freemasons have followed suit: they will now admit transgender women who were born men.
The member wishes to guard her family’s privacy – she has a wife (they remain together) and children, and other children from a previous marriage. But she agreed to speak to me on condition of anonymity. As requested, I shall refer throughout to ‘she’, ‘her’ and ‘Lady X’, her chosen pseudonym.
After a law degree and a postgraduate diploma in legal practice at Oxford, Lady X spent over 15 years in publishing and PR, before retiring to become a writer and full-time parent.
For all that time, she was struggling with her gender.
‘In my infancy, I told my parents I was a girl and it was a mistake to call me a boy,’ she says. ‘They told me to shut up and march on.
‘Two marriages later, and still struggling to find inner peace, I’ve been diagnosed with gender dysphoria and prescribed the relevant medication, which did change my face and body to a degree and made me finally recognise myself in the mirror.
‘Nevertheless, I’ve struggled, trying to keep it a secret, and to pose as a male in professional and social life. It was shameful and peculiar to be a transsexual, a transgender, a transwhatever.
‘I had a fairly successful male life and was gladly accepted in the male circles, joining golf clubs, gentlemen-only private members’ clubs etc, even though I’ve always perceived men as the opposite sex. But I have rarely flirted with them.
‘However, there came a day when, to the world at large I started to appear more of a woman. So I have happily accepted that role too and continued my transition.’
Lady X’s transitioning gradually began to have an effect on her membership of the Savile.
‘I joined the Savile some years ago, in an attempt to immerse myself in the world of male interests and pursuits, in a hope of finding anything which would appeal to me and bring out whatever male is in me,’ she says.
She immediately took to the Savile.
‘It was the first club where I have really struck great friendships, got to know so many of its wonderful members, enjoyed the club events, contributed to the club newsletter. I have always loved the food and the rooms and the company. It was and remains to me my London “home away from home”,’ says Lady X, who lives outside London.
Still, though, her transition was beginning to produce some questioning looks in the club.
‘The looks were rarely disapproving; more curious,’ says Lady X. ‘Members were talking behind my back, discussing whether I am a “he” or a “she”.
‘I always dress in a male suit at the club, trying to comply with the dress code – nevertheless, there were numerous incidents when people who don’t know me were thinking that I’m “a strange woman dressed as a man trying to join the members’ table at the dinner”. People who know me personally were, at all times, very understanding and have never objected.’
The club committee, which deals with membership issues, was also raising eyebrows about her.
‘For one of the last “gentlemen-only” clubs in London, it was a rather sensitive matter – allowing me to continue my membership despite my female appearance,’ she says.
A similar situation confronted the writer Jan Morris, who began transitioning in 1964. She resigned from the all-male Travellers Club rather than present the club with a dilemma.
The Savile member has been touched by the club’s response.
‘I feel at times sad that I couldn’t help but to transition,’ she says. ‘However, the club has shown enormous understanding and support and I am most truly grateful to them all. It was about friendship, not a policy issue; so there was no formal decision.
‘I was told by some people who were present at one of the committee meetings that someone raised a question about how the club should deal with my ongoing transition. Everyone agreed that that wasn’t an issue, as they won’t want to see me leaving the club and that, anyway, I’ve joined it as a gentleman, so my election isn’t something retractable.
‘To which I said, “Fair enough” and “Thank you.”
‘I didn’t want to leave the club I loved. Its members didn’t want to see me going. Despite many of them being ultra-traditional in their views, they have realised that people like me can exist in their own world and can be enjoyable company. They have widened their criteria of acceptance. They have welcomed me in all my entirety. As long as I comply with the dress code.’
Gentlemen’s clubs are famously precise about dress codes – a jacket and tie are required for most London clubs, though the Savile gave up requiring ties years ago.
‘The dress code is almost as important as the Bible and is the core of most clubs’ rules,’ says Lady X. ‘I was informally asked – not at any committee meeting – whether continuing to dress in a suit (no skirts, no dresses) would be a problem for me. I said, “No, it won’t”, as I like the club and don’t want to cause anyone any discomfort.
‘A suit? A jacket, at least? Presentable appearance? No problem! A liberation of female dress in the 20th century allows us now to dress in female or gender-neutral suits and thus comply with the club dress code, while looking fabulous. I must admit I still have one or two male suits as well and even wear them occasionally. Because girls like wearing male clothes, too!’
Lady X has, in the past, been keen to introduce her eldest son, in his late twenties, to the club. I wondered if the coverage of her transition had altered this. ‘At the moment, he isn’t interested in any of the clubs, even just visiting them as a guest,’ she says, ‘He says he doesn’t see the point of them. Maybe some time later.’
In this instance, the club’s civilised eccentricity has led to a happy compromise.
‘I think, in my own “quiet” way, I have made some change,’ says Lady X. ‘Some of the club members with very conservative views have widened them, accepting me and what I am, and realising that there may be other people like me who aren’t bad company, either. That’s my little contribution to making the world more understanding and accepting, a better place.’
All the members I’ve spoken to have been perfectly at ease with the situation – though one eminent and long-standing Savilian thought it utterly ridiculous to suggest Lady X should have to wear a suit at the club. The club’s only rule on dress is that it should not offend another member.
Perhaps, among the sea of dinner jackets at the club’s Christmas dinner this year, the members can expect to see something rather more outré.