Verily, the Christmas break doth interrupt blogging. And as it happens, I’m travelling quite a bit shortly, so it is likely be mid-January before normal service, whatever that may be, resumes.
In the meantime, a final post for a wee while. The title is inspired by the comics character The Invisible Girl (later the Invisible Woman), one of the founding members of The Fantastic Four, whose appearance in 1961 is seen as the start of the Marvel Age of Comics. The FF comprised a man who became incredibly strong (and visibly scary), a man with an incredible scientific brain who could stretch like hell, a boy who could burst into flames and fly and a woman (sister of the boy and girlfriend of the stretchy scientist) who could, this being 1961, er … disappear.
I’m not saying invisibility isn’t a useful skill mind you, just observing the sexual politics associated with the doling out of powers. Sue Storm, the character, was eventually given the additional power of throwing out powerful forcefields. something she eventually learned to use offensively as well as defensively.
As a child when I first encountered the FF (some years after their creation) I identified with Johnny Storm, adventurous in spirit and with nifty powers, although in real life I more closely resembled the bookish, shy Peter Parker (aka Spider-Man). Looking back it’s interesting to see how child characters of differing genders were treated in pop culture (particularly American pop culture) of the time. I also loved Lost in Space and primarily identified with Will Robinson – an adventuresome boy on an alien planet with a robot for a pal, how could you not? His slightly older sister Penny was given almost nothing to do. Although if you view it with an adult eye (the surreal black and white first season, rather than the later, camper episodes) the stories which do focus on Penny are fascinating – may I commend the heady mix of pop cultture and Freudianism in the episode The Magic Mirror. Lost in Space Year One is a misunderstood gem in my opinion. But there you are.
As I have written earlier, when I first became conscious of my gender variation (at the age of nine) it was quickly clear to me that I had to hide this knowledge for my own safety. The main reason for that decision was sensing how negatively gender variant people were viewed, but of course a subsidiary reason may have been the way girls were depicted in films and TV shows I watched, and in stories I read. Not exactly a revolutionary observation, I grant you.
When I transitioned in July 2009, to begin with I yearned to be a different kind of invisible woman. I wanted to blend in to the gender I felt myself to be, not to be seen as someone whose gender was uncertain or ambiguous. Coming out for trans people is often different to coming out as lesbian, gay or bi. Gay people can often choose how and when to come out, whereas visible changes may reduce that option for trans people, who may indeed feel, at least to begin with, that they want to vanish into the population.
My yearning had to be balanced against the decisions I had taken leading up to, and during my transition. I had read many accounts of male-to-female transitions which involved relocating and starting a fresh life, unburdened by male history to be sure but also saying goodbye to your life history. In America in the 1970s trans people who were also parents received medical advice to divorce, because the view was that children would not be able to bear seeing their parent transition.
When I accepted who I was and that I needed to transition, and started thinking about what would happen next, I didn’t think in those terms. I wanted to stay with my family. I loved my job, and loved where I lived. So even as I had those early, tentative hopes of “invisibility”, I rendered that more difficult by choosing to transition so much in the view of my family, friends and colleagues.
Once I had transitioned, the experience was not as I had expected in any case – in numerous different ways which I don’t have space to go into here. Except to say that in almost every case the experience was better and more positive than I dared hope.
But life does become complex, because in a typical day you will interact with people who do know your trans history (and have varied views and responses to it, not all of which are apparent or easily understandable) and people who don’t. And what I mostly want to do, as someone who identifies as female (as opposed to those who identify differently on the gender spectrum, away from the clear-ish ends of it) is to be able to get on with my life as a woman.
In the end you have to try and just press on with life, as confidently as possible. That means there are often situations in which your history is invisible and/or irrelevant to the person/people you are interacting with. And it is very pleasing to be accepted as the person I feel myself to be. But on the other hand, if a minority’s history is universally invisible, rather than invisible in particular contexts, then things are unlikely to get better for that minority. So I consider I was lucky when, four months after transitioning, I tentatively, anxiously wandered into a planning meeting for LGBT History Month 2010.
I arrived at that meeting as a consequence of attending a Staff Pride meeting where I worked. Being in a room with mostly LGB colleagues (some of whom knew me in the past) so soon after transitioning did feel very uncomfortable to begin with. Not because of anybody there – just the newness and “no going back”-ness of it. But either at the first meeting or the second-meeting the invitation for someone from UEA to attend the initial planning meeting was discussed and as it happened, I was the only person able to go on the suggested date. Nervously, I offered my services.
As I talked and began to get to know my Norwich Pride colleagues, a little of my anxiety receded. They were very keen for UEA to contribute some talks to the History Month programme and myself and colleagues managed to organize several events. I had the idea to invite, and then the courage to invite Richard Beard and Drusilla Marland. And in due course, found the confidence to introduce their reading and talk. Although I found this public visibility nerve-wracking just over six months since transitioning I was thrilled at the number of friends and colleagues in the audience. Norwich, I might add, was the only UK city outside London to have History Month events on every day in February (sometimes more than one event). We’ll have even more this year – keep an eye on developments if you live in, near or are visiting Norwich.
Nonetheless I was anxious. I had wanted, to begin with, to “just blend in”, but the steps I was suddenly taking were inevitably, at least on some occasions, drawing attention to my gender history. But, I reflected, for a good reason.
It took a bit of getting used to that sometimes my history was more apparent, and sometimes less so. You can drive yourself nuts paying attention to that, and trying to figure out what’s going on with people you’re interacting with at any particular time. Increasingly I’ve tried not to worry about that – I won’t say I never worry, but I worry less.
As 2010 progressed I started to get more involved, and more political, in my own small way. In the UK, even though many more people are seeking medical care in relation to being trans (and those who seek such care are a sub-set of the overall trans population) the median age of people seeking such care still hovers around 42. Why is that I thought? I realized that if I knew something about my gender identity at nine (which I did) but decades went by before I accepted myself enough to seek help (which they did), that was not all my fault, but perhaps had a teeny bit to do with the way that society at large has tended to regard transness as unacceptable.
So over the past year I have found myself more and more involved, and more visible, which was not what I was expecting pre-transition. I did my own talk at Pride in July, and participated in a panel discussion, and marched through the city. I have written for The Guardian newspaper, online magazine The Scavenger, and the Graduate Journal of Social Science. I have been to an international transgender conference in Sweden. And I kicked off, and continue this blog. The list goes on …
And I’ve learned an incredible amount in the past year. From reading, from meeting other trans people and celebrating that we increasingly determine our own identities, rather than have identities imposed on us by doctors and/or the law. And the most powerful thing I’ve learned is that I can be truly myself without having to discard or deny my history. That it is healthy to be open and honest. And the more of us who do that, the harder it is for society to ignore us or deny us our rights, and the easier it may become for others if we can make the path for them a little clearer and less bumpy.
I’ll be back on the blog around mid-January. Happy New Year to you all!