My blog productivity is likely to dip for a while. I’m travelling on and off over the next few weeks and it will be tricky to manage a daily post. But you can always click the Sign me up! button on this page to get an e-mail notification every time I post something (she hinted …)
Writing in the last post about my moment of recognition made me stop and think. I want to try to give you a sense of what it’s been like for me to be trans, and about how and why now is so different to then. It will take this blog a while to get to now in much detail but I’ve already written about how life post-transition, with all its challenges, is so different to life pre-transition. Only once I got free of those restrictions could I see them for what they really were.
But life before the day, aged nine, when I recognized my transness, was equally different from life before that moment, because very shortly after that realization came a choice. The choice to keep things secret. And that single choice was probably the most momentous of my life – it literally defined things for decades to come. Over the years I occasionally, slightly and perhaps progressively freed myself from some of the consequences of that choice, but only slowly, and partially, until I found the courage to accept myself two years ago.
The choice exercised so much power because, over time, it became so much more than a choice. Because a whole load of experiences, and my perceptions (not always accurate perhaps) of the views of other people, and of society, added to the certainty that I had to stick to the choice and made it a bigger and bigger burden. Let me try and explain what I mean by that, and what it felt like.
I’ve written about the blissful day I was cast as a girl in Hiawatha, with the princely allocation of two lines (which I managed, with the aid of stage fright and persistence, to whittle down to one). And how I very quickly decided to keep my knowledge a secret.
I did this because:
- I didn’t understand why I had these feelings, and initially thought I was the only person who did;
- I was scared of my Dad, and thought he’d throw me out. Or want to, which would have been just as bad;
- I was an only child, so I didn’t have a sibling to confide in, and I was too scared to tell any of my friends;
- When I discovered there were others like me, I quickly realized that this behaviour was not considered acceptable by most people;
- When I heard school friends joke about crossdressing or gender, I was terrified about what might happen to me if they knew about me;
- When I started to read about trans people (more on the four sacred texts of my childhood later) their lives seemed terrifyingly different and risky.
On the other hand, it has only occurred to me recently that even though suppressing my true self was awful, it might well have been a lucky escape. I’ve had an easier life than some – read this, although try to ignore some of the poorly chosen language describing those with mental health problems. When I was a child, people who admitted their gender variance (particularly children, who are of course especially vulnerable), would often be considered to have a mental illness which needed ‘curing’. That cure could be a talk with a psychiatrist, or admission to an asylum, or aversion therapy, or shock therapy – a whole range of horrible possibilities. My parents would probably have deferred to medical experts (they did about most things), and who knows what might have happened. So in some ways, a narrow squeak, but in other ways …
Perhaps a little thought experiment or two. Imagine that you are in your early teens and every Friday afternoon is when you play sport at school. Now imagine that your teacher tells you that you, and only you, must now change your clothes for whatever sport it is in the changing room intended for the other gender, while the people who normally use that changing room get changed themselves. The reason doesn’t matter – just the fact that you must do this, that there is no way of avoiding the experience. You can, I guess, imagine how uncomfortable that might feel. Now imagine growing up and going through adolescence having that feeling pretty much all the time. It may not always be a strong feeling, but it never entirely goes away. So while it’s not always debilitating, it is always limiting.
To some degree you would feel, pretty constantly, uneasy about yourself, uncomfortable in the company of others, different, separate.
If you had that feeling, imagine how that would influence your life choices. That feeling that you are separate, unacceptable, inferior, that in some way also you stick out/don’t fit in. I know many of us have that in childhood, but trans people are in a situation that feels as though there is independent evidence that the feeling is correct. Do you think you will make good choices, positive choices? Well maybe you will, to the degree that you manage to overcome these feelings. And though they are always there, they are not always overwhelming, don’t always prevent you from doing things or making decisions.
But in my case, the impact of living under that shadow, no matter how many good things have also happened, was huge. It crushed my confidence as an adolescent, adding to the insecurity that many of us feel at that time anyway. As a teenager I was often surprised at schoolmates recognizing me outside school because I felt literally invisible, unrecognizable, a blank. When I overcame that I came to another conclusion (aided by the helpful comments of other children) – that I was simply ugly.
I can see how thoroughly that one decision at nine, necessary though it probably was, influenced my confidence, my sense of self-worth, my aversion to risk-taking, my choice of university subject and of jobs post-University. My CV, for the first ten years, is bafllingly varied and chaotic – career as tapas. Because I was always running away from myself.
Gradually, you learn to cope. If you are trans you may learn to behave ‘normally’ in your birth gender, and you even make a success of some aspects of that gender. Some make a hyper-success of it, so strong is the fear of facing your own nature. You stay in work – maybe become settled. But generally – and there’s now research evidence about this – you underachieve – socially, at work, and in terms of intimate relationships.
There are always exceptions to this – people who do pretty well despite being trans. And as I’ve said, my life pre-transition had good points as well as bad points. Interestingly there were more good points in recent years as I cautiously, warily approached the moment of self-acceptance. But I can look back – before transitioning, before 3 May 2008, and see how thoroughly that single, pre-adolescent decision has shaped most of my life. Until now.