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Plus ça change

  • Posted on January 12, 2014 at 9:23 am

A young man is standing at night on the walls of the old city of Jerusalem. The scent of orange blossoms hangs in the warm Easter air. A growing warmth is also drawing him to a young woman who seems to like him. Over breakfast of pitta bread with strawberry jam, grape juice and Turkish coffee she likes his eyes, his sense of integrity, his humour and sense of where he is going.

A middle-aged woman is remembering her graduation year, the daring to go to Israel to see the archaeology and history just weeks before finals while everyone else was sweating their revision. She is remembering the morning muezzin after an evening of romantic feelings, and how her eyes had been so attractive to someone else.

A young man is descending a Peak District hill on a hot summer day. He has been struggling with something and walking is therapeutic. His rucksack contains the day’s essentials to protect him against change in weather and he is churning over thoughts as poetic lines and songs in his head. His boots strike the gritstone rocks as he negotiates the bracken hillside. The map in his pack is also in his head as he heads for the road that leads to toasted teacakes. This has all been familiar territory for some time.

A middle-aged woman in stout boots, jeans, rucksack and warm jumper has just left the crag-climbers behind as she follows the track through bracken and down to a grassy path and a familiar church. You can always follow the steeples as you come off the moor; this she learned when quite young, and first came to the Peak District by bus. A very old map is in her rucksack, the folds now open tears, but it is a reminder and a prompt if she fancies a new track or diversion. She’s come further than she had imagined to be here now. The valley will welcome her with a cosy tea shop, where she will distil some thoughts in her poetry notebook.

It is a daring moment for the father of two, as he begins work on a new house together. His plumbing skills will be called for, and some re-wiring, and he doesn’t yet realise, but the tiling job will turn into his first plastering job, and he will do it well to make a perfect little family bathroom. Before he leaves he will have renovated the kitchen, rebuilt doorways, installed full-length sliding wardrobe doors and interior and redecorated throughout. He will be cared for through back surgery, and he will also be found out for what he really is.

A 57-year old woman is detaching the soil pipe from a lavatory pan and clearing the bathroom in her flat for some renovation. By the time she finishes, the room will be quite different, with neatly boxed pipes and tiled surfaces, new flooring and attractive lilac walls. Here she will take her showers in a morning, and hot baths to candles and music at weekends. Other jobs will get sorted over time. About to be divorced, she is getting used to living alone and doing everything for herself. Soon she will be getting an appointment for surgery, and is wondering what it will be like, dealing with pain and recovery, alone.

A middle-aged man is lying on a gurney, a line in his arm and a pain in his back. If he is to walk normally again, parts of his body will be removed, the place closed, and he will recover. If the surgeon does his job well, the pain will be gone and he will stand on his toes again. His pain has evoked sympathy, support and loving care, and he has learnt a lot about pain, the mind, sense of value to others, and vulnerability. He has been scared, disturbed by a body that isn’t right, and prepared himself for this moment. Later, his eyes open in a disoriented state. It is over. Any pain is different. It will diminish in coming days, and life will return to normal.

A later-middle-aged woman is lying on a gurney, a line in her arm, and a yearning in her heart. Soon her eyes will close, and if the surgeon does his job well, her pain will be gone and she will dream of returning to dance, but in clothes that fit properly, and without having to disguise anything. She knows plenty of people who have come this way before her, and is reassured. But she will not be returning home to the love and care of a family. She has learned a lot about truth and authenticity, and about the conditionality of love. In a few hours, her eyes will open in a disoriented state of euphoria, and she will experience considerable pain before she begins to heal. But for the first time, she will feel really, fully, whole.

She may also lie there in the coming days and catch the scent of orange blossom in a shower gel or bar of soap. She may imagine the smell of strong coffee or ask for strawberry jam. Visitors may see a new light in her eyes, or recognise a strong integrity and a sense of arrival in someone who knows where they’re going. Her humour will break through as usual, unchanged. There may be a mixture of tears, from pain, from joy, and from the memory of a romance that started in Jerusalem and lasted over 30 years, and that depended entirely on that young man who woke with the muezzin. And that was conditional on her not being here, now, like this.

This is the story of a single person, in short episodes. Anyone really knowing this person may well say ‘plus ça change’. There may seem to be external changes, and indeed there are. But there is no pretence, and a lifetime of being one and the same person has finally come together. Very little can be considered ‘lost’ about this person. Her life has changed, and inside the difference is incomprehensibly better. But you will always know who she is.

But I don’t actually want this story to be about me. I want it to be a perspective for people starting out in the realisation that they have gender dysphoria, and for anyone who knows, loves and cares for them. I want also to show how being transsexual is a perfectly normal difference to be born with, and that avoiding the awareness and the issues is cruel and unnecessary. If this was the familiar story, rather than the sensational documentary about ‘sex swaps’, then we might all have grown up with acceptance. I have had to learn to be open and confident. To begin with it was daunting and I felt very vulnerable. That was after a lifetime of fear of being found out as something bad. I already knew it was bad to be thinking about my gender as different, and the parallels above illustrate how wrong and unnecessary the split life has been. I am not a different person, and if I have changed in some ways, it is only for the better. But most of me by far is the same, including the eyes.

This week I was asked if I was one of those men who likes to dance in a skirt. The misunderstanding was mine. As it transpired, the only reason I was asked was my name (more commonly sounding like a man’s name) and because in the dance I do, there is a background principle that allows wearing clothes that broaden your shared experience of being simply human rather than gendered. It was perfectly reasonable to guess, but it was not because of how I look. This, I didn’t mind, and it afforded to opportunity to explain openly what it means to be transsexual to someone who genuinely wanted to understand. I hope I shall always be prepared to sit down like this and explain. If I, and people like me don’t, the world will be full of men in the story above, who are too afraid to be who they really are (the woman in all the episodes above), and families and colleagues uncertain about being associated with us, and journalists who think that we are freaks and perverts and bad for society.

Plus ça change? I think so, despite my journey over the last few years. We all change over the course of our lives, and mine may seem like greater changes, but never ever think of people like me as becoming anything other than who we really are. Some things change when someone ‘transitions’, but many more do not.


  • Posted on January 4, 2014 at 10:18 pm

Sometimes (I wrote under a photo of a single swan) it is enough just to be.

That was over 30 years ago, a gift with love. Just a few years earlier, I gained a lifetime favourite song, ‘Be’ from the film Jonathan Livingstone Seagull. By now I was grown up, so the question of ‘What do you want to be?’ was getting a bit passée.

Being and doing

It’s interesting to think about the relationship between being and doing, Socrates thought so (to be is to do), as did Plato (to do is to be). And no, it’s not the Sinatra joke (do-be-do). Can you do anything without being? Can you be anything unless you express it by doing? I think the difference is that you can suppress actions that you feel would be natural, if only you felt free and accepted, and you can do things that aren’t natural in order to appear to be something you are not. And you can also make a show of doing something that expresses your being, as if it were exceptional, in order to seek permission to be.

I’ve read people who write about ‘doing’ trans* or queer, perhaps because they feel their sense of being is not resolved by pigeon-holing themselves, or because it is a stage in exploration: can they really be different? Can it really be that they are different?

I remember a quite distinct period of ‘doing’, of pushing the envelope, of seeing what fitted, what would happen, where it would lead. At first it was what I very much wanted to do, and felt very like expressing something I was, but felt a bit awkward simply because it was different. And there was also an element of wanting to be noticed. It was a real nuisance and disappointment after a day of ‘doing’ female to remove the nail varnish, but it was also a good reason to leave it on so it would be noticed. If it had really felt out of place with my being, I would have wanted to remove it. I didn’t. I wanted what I was to be seen by what I did. And I started to make more and more things noticeable, because I was desperate to be known for what I was, by having to explain things I was doing. I think it is a very common thing.

Doing and permission

But it isn’t just about being trans* or queer, or anything do do with sex or gender. It’s about our freedoms do be ourselves, to make life something of being, not of doing.

I remember ten years ago and more screaming out inside because I was in constant demand, but only for what I could do, not simply for what I was (as a whole person). And that was before I even began to understand my gender struggles. I wrote a poem at the time that expressed my life as being like a cairn, a way-marker. Everyone passing by was placing another small stone, making me useful, adding to my layers, my reason to be there for them. Whereas what I wanted most of all was to have bits of me taken, loved, valued, to add to their lives, their sense of being. It was a very powerful period in my life, and, looking back, a beginning of inner change that enable me eventually to find the freedom to not have to do, but to be.

Sometimes it is enough just to be? No. It is always enough just to be.

Doing as a free expression of being is not conscious doing, it is what others see as a result of you simply being. You don’t make it up, you don’t have to make it visible in order to gain permission to be yourself.

Tied in knots

Last night I was talking with a friend who had had one of those difficult family Christmases. Physically, she was literally tied in knots as a result. Unable simply to be in that company, she had done as much as she could to accommodate herself in the situation, and had come away with needing to do the right things to release herself from the knots: ‘I’ve got to get rid of all this contraction first!’ – and she had a method in mind, difficult, but sure to be effective.

I remembered this time last year, writing several times about letting go of a marriage, a love, something deeply attached. I was an orang-utan mother carrying a dead baby, being mother when mother was no longer the reality. And in the end, after too long, I realised it wasn’t just grieving, it wasn’t difficult in itself, I just had to know I was allowed to let go. No special technique, no esoteric method, no effort or strength – just to put down what I didn’t have to carry. If I didn’t want to.

I reminded myself and my friend that a simple fact of life is that we don’t owe anyone anything, and no-one owes us anything. We are born to parents because that is the only way in. We mostly grow up in a family, because mostly parents or carers feel our nurture is the right thing to do. But it doesn’t put us in debt, it just teaches us to do likewise or better. There is no debt system hanging over us. If we choose to be kind, to love, to be generous, to be free, then we can be. Can you think of anything better? Not out of indebtedness, but out of an expression of self.

This is doing as an expression of being. Not doing to see if we can be ourselves, or dare to be ourselves, or are acceptable as ourselves.

What helps us best to express our being? If we want to do that, the rest follows.

It isn’t a resolution for 2014, it’s a revolution.

Just be. Oh, and let others be who they are, not what you want or need them to be. Love them as they are. Some may love you as you are too, especially if all your doing is a free expression of your being.