I’m about to go on a family visit so blog posts are likely to go onto pause for a few days, leaving things on a slight cliffhanger. In any case I wanted to
take a slight sideways step to consider one or two things that are on my mind at present. Please note that the following is not advice, or instructions, or the best/only/ideal way to do things. It’s simply some tentative, provisional thoughts based on my own experience of/reflections on the effect of transition on some aspects of my own feelings about identity.
In the months approaching transition I had some hopes about how things might go – they were very nervous and tentative hopes I think. I also began to wonder what life might be like after transitioning. I’ll have more to say about that another time – at the moment suffice to say that the reality is very different (mostly in good ways) from my pre-transition imaginings. One reason for that is that those imaginings were shaped primarily by reading rather than experience – reading accounts of other transitions in books, on web sites, in online communities; reading guidance on things like hair removal, the effects of hormones, speech therapy etc; and reading “official” or semi-official documents, such as the Gender Recognition Act (GRA), and guidance on workplace issues produced by trade unions and others.
One of the issues that preoccupied me a lot before, during, and in the early months after transition, was the degree to which I would wish to, or be forced to share information about my history and past identity. I guess there were two main dimensions to this – the first was to do with the consequences of staying in my job, neighbourhood and with my family, while the second was around issues of how I perceive myself, and how I would be perceived by others.
Pre-transition I read accounts of advice given to trans people, particularly in the USA in the 1970s and 1980s, to the effect that we should divorce and leave our children, if we had any, because the trauma of seeing a parent transition would be too much for them. That’s right – instructions to divorce given as “medical advice”. I also read contemporary accounts of families failing to cope with transition and the trans person having to leave the family home and their loved ones. I also read accounts, sometimes very personal, of trans people who choose to live in “stealth” – which effectively means drawing a line under/hiding their personal history in order to live comfortably in their true gender. Doing so is complicated – because essentially you need to maintain separate private and public histories of your life, which also probably requires relocation and a “fresh start” – and also takes an emotional toll. I have no desire to “judge” anyone who has chosen that path. Transition is a very personal matter and all trans people are presented with their own individual challenges to which they can respond as best they can. I simply note that I had always wished to try and transition within the life situation I already had – I hoped that it wouldn’t be necessary to sacrifice that.
Nonetheless when I first started coming out to people it felt very scary and unsafe – I was not sure about where this particular path through transition might lead, and what the fall-out might be. Telling the first person that you are going to transition is an enormous and scary step. Second person – still very scary. Third person – slightly less. It’s perhaps worth focussing on workplace transition here, as this is one of the most structured processes.
UK legislation places requirements on employers to deal with transition in a particular way, and to preserve the confidentiality of the transitioning person. In the early stages when I shared this information with a handful of colleagues, this felt very reassuring as I knew that the news would go no further – I trusted the individuals involved in any case but there was legal and practical protection. At that stage every new coming out felt very scary.
There is also provision for protecting identity after transition – for example colleagues “in the know” are not supposed to share information about the individual’s gender history with those not in the know. By the spring of 2009 I had come out to my department at work (around 20 people) plus a handful of others at the University and a number of friends and family. And then there came a point, that spring, where we had to decide what to do about colleagues beyond my immediate department. I run a professional devleopment course for academics at my University which now has well over 200 participants. As a consequence of running the course, and other activities I am involved in, I am known to all the heads of academic departments, to colleagues in HR, to senior management in the University, to staff we work with at our School of Education, and so on. In the end, I recognized that all of these people would need to know, and that even if they were all careful not to share the information (which most of them were) in the end so many people would “know” at the University that I would not be able to hide my past history.
There was a morning when I walked into work knowing that some 30 people there knew I was transitioning. Later that day I visited an HR colleague and we sent messages out to those who “needed to know”. It was the end of term and – surreally – we could hear a steel band playing in the University square as we batted out these e-mails. As I walked home that night I reflected that now, over 300 people knew I was transitioning. Walking off-campus I felt like I was wearing a sandwich board declaring my plans.
For a day or two that felt very unnerving, but worry gave way to joy as I received many e-mails of support from colleagues. In the following days I realized that for me, it wasn’t possible to be precious or protective about my history, and that became a relief, a removal of a massive burden and in turn a very positive thing.
Immediately after transition a lot of sensitivities returned as I adjusted to my new life, and colleagues and friends adjusted to changes in me. I might write about that complicated era another time, when one is so sensitive to the reactions of others. Over the past year though, I’ve gained a lot of confidence. I can, of course, get anxious, as I continue to be on a transitional journey where lots of things continue to change, some quickly, some slowly. But the inevitability of being fairly public and open locally about my transition has given me confidence to use my history in a positive way, and not to feel I have to hide – so I have talked about LGBT issues at Norwich Pride, and written for The Guardian newspaper, and got involved in a number of other ways.
Nonetheless, although I am open about my history when I need to be, or when it seems helpful, I do not feel remotely defined by it – shaped, yes, but not defined. I also know, that in terms of my own identity, I am a woman. Not a facsimile, or an imitation of a woman, but truly a woman. The issues and challenges I face are those all women face in my society. I also have a particular history which presents other challenges (and opportunities) but which does not invalidate my core identity. This is not to sit in judgement on those who identify as neither one gender nor another – it is everyone’s right to consider and come to conclusions about their own identity, to know themselves as best they can, to have equality of opportunity as far as that can be made possible. However if gender is a spectrum, some of us are going to be found towards one end of that spectrum.
It does mean, in a way that seems paradoxical at first, that the more at ease I am with my history, the more confident I am about expressing my true gender. Increasingly, in my experience, people who meet me and who don’t know my history simply accept me as female, which is a powerful and positive experience for me. Equally some who do know my history seem increasingly to recognize the authenticity of my core female identity – powerful and positive in another way. If we are striving for an equal society, then the authenticity of everyone’s identity, determined by them, not by others, such be not just accepted but believed, in the absence of evidence to the contrary. For more on the position particularly of trans women in society (although some of these issues also impact on trans men, trans women in particular feel the impact of sexism, misogyny, male privilege and some very specific [outdated] feminist perspectives) I recommend Julia Serano’s groundbreaking book Whipping Girl. See you in a few days.