Back in August 2012 I wrote about being ‘acceptably different’, by which I meant recognising that at the time I was still quite visibly in transition, and that it was best to go with the flow, knowing that there was no hiding my ambiguity. A lot has happened since then, and in reality I have very little reference from day to day with my ‘trans history’. It isn’t that can forget it, or that I avoid it. It just happens a lot less these days.
A few days ago a colleague at work called in to say they would be late, and I was there early enough to be the one to take their call. They didn’t recognise my voice, probably thinking that I was one of the several male Andys. My voice without my face, I expect, sounds anomalous. It’s confusing.
I sometimes ask my partner (whom I trust to be honest) what my most obvious giveaways are. It seems love blinds one to these things though; it’s me, not my face or my almost absent waist, that matters. And yet I know, even though it really doesn’t matter, that she will always be able to ‘see the man in me’ because it’s there. A puberty and a life fed by testosterone inevitably does that to you, and nothing will change it. Together we can be honest about this. And it doesn’t matter. And yet to one of her friends, it (and/or our lesbian relationship) does, and she has had to decide whether to stand with me, where my trans history/status is not welcome, or ignore this and go to an event without me. I know that I/we carry the stigma wherever the stigma exists in another person’s mind.
Out walking one lunchtime this week with two female colleagues, we were talking about marriage, friendships and relationships, and how we all change, and have to accept that relationships of all kinds don’t always last well as a result. Co-dependency, possessiveness, restricting each other’s natural growth and development, are not good for us. ‘I’m not the girl I was at twenty!’, said my colleague. ‘Nor am I’, I replied spontaneously. And we all burst out laughing helplessly …
My partner and I sat together today to sort a financial matter out with a bank. Being divorced, I guess they had to be sure my credit rating could be verified, so one question was: ‘Have you ever been known by any other name?’ I declined to answer (is that suspicious?) because to do so would reveal more than a name, and that matter is now entirely and legally confidential. But I wondered: did the nice young man understand because he could see that I was a rather unusual-looking woman, and being in a cosmopolitan city, guessed my history? If he did, it didn’t matter.
So on the whole, nearly three years on, I find myself almost universally accepted. My voice hasn’t improved (I have probably gotten lazy), but I hardly ever talk about transition any more. My past is there, which can’t be avoided, but it is my past. It is not me now. So much so that as I browsed old photos with my partner this week, I realised that my only connection with my childhood in my mind, is to think of how I was as a little girl.
I have changed a great deal, even in the last two years, physically, mentally, psychologically and socially, but some things will always give me away, through appearance, habit, manner or simply the knowledge of how I used to live. And people still have to decide: am I acceptable. Thankfully, for almost everyone, I am. But the acceptance is as a different kind of person. And so I still check in with myself as to whether I am disappointed not to be completely and exclusively perceived to be a ‘normal woman’ – because I am not, and I cannot be.
On the whole, I am not. If I was in my twenties, I might be, but at least my face would be in a better shape and my body more youthful. However, I am aware that for many trans women appearance can be a burden. Confidence carries you a long way, appropriate dressing is very important as part of realistic expectations, and personal acceptance to save undermining yourself, essential. It’s all very well to talk about being acceptably different to other people, but accepting one’s own difference with good grace takes more than a brave face. If someone else looks at you and you can tell that they know straightaway that you are trans, you can say ‘well, that’s their problem, not mine’. But if, after as complete treatment as you can get or afford, you still look at yourself in the mirror and feel wrong, you’d better find a way of coping and understanding yourself.
In a therapy session before I had to walk away from my marriage, one of the counselors remarked that some trans women can’t cope after complete transition because they feel they can never be as ‘good’ as they expected or wanted to be. I already knew that wouldn’t be my problem, but I think now I would be less overall dismissive. So once again, if I have anything to say to people beginning or in transition, it would be that you have to dig very deep in your preparation for change, taking your imagination to the worse possible outcomes to test your fears. But also dig deep to test your reaction to the best possible outcomes. You really don’t know before those final steps quite how it’s going (honestly, truthfully) to feel. You can kid yourself that it’s everything you want, and you can equally kid yourself that you can manage without it. When reminded that surgical outcomes can be less than optimal, believe it could be you and test your resilience. But also, prepare yourself for the best of outcomes, and get to know your body beyond past experiences, believing that it can be acceptable, to a future partner and to yourself.
I know a number of people for whom surgery was less than optimal, just as I know those for whom everything was good. I know that I was lucky, but I don’t want to speak from that as if it is the only outcome. I only want to say that I was very well prepared mentally, psychologically and physically, and that it paid off. To my partner, my body is perfectly acceptable, responds surprisingly well, and we are very happy together. To me, I am relieved – that I do not have to worry about being imperfect or, if ‘the man’ remnant still in me is visible, that it actually doesn’t matter at all. But I believe that I came through so easily only because I’d already explored the dark corners.
In sum, ‘acceptably different’ has gained two sides: dealing with people who know my past, and dealing with myself who has that past. The first can’t just be dismissed because there will always be the tripping moments (like those above). The second is vital, and must not be ignored. I hear too many people losing self-belief during transition, feeling defeated by the things they cannot change. If you have gender dysphoria, you have to accept your difference is something to live with – even after transition. The dysphoria goes, but the world doesn’t change. In a word: prepare. Prepare very well.