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Tell me about your childhood

  • Posted on July 5, 2015 at 2:41 pm

I’ve said here before, that the only task of every psychiatrist I saw throughout my transition, was to make sure that I had no underlying psychiatric or mental disorder. Detecting gender dysphoria (or whatever we choose to call it) is a pretty difficult thing for someone who has never experienced it, but like any doctor or medical person, of course all you can go with is signs and symptoms, and diagnostic data. Unlike a bone, there is no x-ray or scan that will reveal gender identity. Chromosome tests have little if anything to do with gender; it is a felt thing. It is a known thing. And yes, it is a bit peculiar.

I am almost one year through my post-surgical transition now, and I am honest about where I am. The old gender identity feels very far away, my body has been altered, not as in restoration, but as in best-possible adjustment. Six months experience of sex, after the first five months of self-acquaintance, and I know where the imperfections lie. I am completely satisfied though, knowing that I have the best outcome I could expect. From the experience of trans men, I know I had it surgically easier, a compensation for entering my fifth year of weekly facial electrolysis. Having said that, I still have this deep awareness of how my body would feel had I been born with female genitalia. It is a bit different (not a lot), and it is uncanny. Something is there in my head like the few wires in a standard car electrical wiring loom unconnected because they were designed for the extra features I didn’t buy.

Yes; for me it is that strong and intuitive. I know what it would have been like to have the extra foglamps and dashboard gizmos.

My car could have extras. There are wires and fuses going nowhere, and I don’t have forward foglamps. It only matters in severe fog; they aren’t a requirement. But I know …

No-one can go for surgical transition expecting total perfection. Satisfaction, oh yes. But the full upgrade? So it is, that I feel most of us will always live with knowing we had a development problem pre-birth. We learn to celebrate what we have, do what we can, and live purposefully. I have never been happier.

But I do know that had I faced the total truth as a teenager, it would have been a harder thing to contemplate, for all kinds of reasons. You can ask a mature adult about their lives and investigate with them all their major influences. You can probably get to the root of things and recognise genuine gender dysphoria, with a sense of real responsibility being taken. For younger people, there is so much Internet information and dialogue going on, that you have to find the person through the learned language, once they have spent real time online. There, you can learn how to be, as much as learn how you are. The Internet saved me, in the sense that I recognised myself. Also, I knew I had a lot to lose if I got it wrong. But I did find my own narrative back to the age of five, in memories that only made sense with the new information.

My childhood was uninformed, it was vanilla, because I was not really permitted to know, think or discuss anything about sex or gender. When I tell you about my childhood, it is pure experience, and the interpretation is by the mature me. I don’t have to claim to have preferred dolls to diggers as toys, and I don’t have to pretend I dressed as a princess. I can tell you what it felt like not to expect a female puberty. I can tell you what it felt like to lose the colourfulness of being very small, as I was dressed as a plain boy for school, when my sister had budgerigars all over her dress, or even when my little school friend had a simple pink gingham dress. I did not need to exaggerate anything to ensure the diagnosis I wanted.

The earnest, very young, child who expresses an uninformed conviction about their gender not matching their body, has to be listened to. Parents may not like it, or be scared by it. But what is a very young child really telling you? Surely, they are telling you something. Later, when a child expresses identity conflict, it may be more difficult, since they can be over-informed as well as under-informed. But still, they are telling you something that is important to them, and as a parent, the best care you can offer is to listen. Yes, recognise that they may be easily influenced, but don’t impose your rationality on them too easily.

I guess it is easier to tell someone about your childhood later in life. I acknowledge that we alter our memories, but the ones that really stick are the ones with most significance. The significance may not be obvious, but it will be there. Why do I remember certain smells so well that I can recall them and the places where they were, so long after? I can’t tell you why; only that I can, and that something made me remember these windows on my childhood better than others. Asking a pubescent child about their earlier childhood feelings may not be so easy to interpret. There will be more of the memories, and less maturity with which to reflect rather than simply remember. But still, they do have the capacity to tell you their life story so far, as they understand it.

Children also must be allowed to make mistakes, and you know as a parent the best you can do is always be there to support and guide. You can’t prevent all the mistakes, and it isn’t your job to do so. Above all, don’t push your child in a direction that simply avoids what you find awkward or embarrassing. When it comes to genuine gender dysphoria expressed by a child, parents don’t usually know what to do. In many cases the parents will not agree. It may be ‘just a phase’ or it may not. One parent or both may feel scared of losing a daughter or son, or personally losing face in their own social circle. The truth is, you all need to find out.

Adult people in gender transition currently are required to live for two years in their preferred gender expression before invasive treatment can take place. It’s very frustrating if you have known all your life. But I know people who have switched about a number of times, either for lack of courage or conviction that this is what they really need to do. For children, the most that will be done is to delay puberty, in order to give the opportunity to really find out how to proceed. But you do have to be honest and open, and be prepared to decide one way or another.

If someone does not have strong gender dysphoria, it’s OK to be gender fluid, non-binary or androgynous. It is OK to be neither or both, however confusing some people may find it. What is not OK, is to impose your view of gender on someone who is struggling to find their identity. It is not your choice or decision. As a parent, the most loving and supportive thing you can do is to listen, be properly informed yourself, and swim alongside your child. You may swallow water, but you won’t drown; but they might if you don’t even jump in. No minority group, and no young persons’ group, has so high a suicide and attempted suicide rate as transgender youth.

There is support available, more so now than ever before. If you need advice or help for your child, please look up and contact Mermaids.

The reason I wrote this today is because I was talking to such a parent about such a child, where the situation is not altogether clear as yet, and where the other parent is dogmatically and assertively opposed to contemplating properly hearing the child. The youngster may or may not have gender dysphoria, but that is the pool they are swimming in right now.

I can think about my childhood, and I can tell my adult story of transition. But I can’t help diagnose anyone else. What I do know is that our childhoods matter for the rest of our lives, and we owe it to youngsters to let them live theirs freely, with all the exploration and mistakes it involves. I didn’t explore much, and I did make mistakes. In the end, I lived too long suppressing my gender with a lot of internalised fear and anger. A decision like gender transition is not easy (especially if you are young) if you are facing a life with one or two permanently disconnected wires just so your headlights work well.

So tell me about your childhood, and I will tell you why it simply matters that you can.

A return to ‘acceptably different’

  • Posted on March 21, 2015 at 11:01 pm

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.

Change: what it means in the end, in the beginning

  • Posted on February 26, 2015 at 8:35 pm

Just over three years ago, I stopped fighting and set out on a journey. In almost every way it was a solo journey. Along the way people and friends came and went, and materially I lost much of what I had gained and relative financial security. And yet I persisted for a long time in the insistence that I was still me, I was the same person. So why did I feel so rejected, when essentially the real me was the same?

It wasn’t fair! It never is. Fairness was never promised us. And yet that unfairness set me free to truly change.

As I now watch trans friends following the same route, at different speeds and with different individual experiences, I see much more clearly. I watch them sometimes succeeding in family relationships. I see them turned from their own doorsteps. I see them successfully in work. I see them struggling to find work. I see them almost continuing as normal, and I see them penniless. I see some with excellent clinical or surgical outcomes, and others whose outcomes have been less enabling. Some form relationships, some are desperately lonely. Some appear to celebrate being affirmatively trans, while others disappear. Some float by on a cloud, others really struggle. I can still stand in front of a public audience and read poetry that can only be explained in the context of being transsexual. And yet from day to day I forget. I am lucky, and I am grateful.

And then I reflect. It comes out of the blue to me. I have changed. I have really changed. Not just physically; I can meet people for the first time in years who aren’t sure who I am – do they know me? Mentally, I have become wholly confident that I am being true to myself. The self-deception has completely gone, the half-known fraudulence of being the very nice, understanding man with a terrifying secret has not been replaced with a new deception. What I am now is absolutely what you see. The best bit is that I actually like myself, even when people are unkind about the minority groupings I find myself in. There is still a great deal of unkindness, especially of religious origin and tradition, that would say I am a dangerous aberration, unworthy to be a parent, a destructive element in an otherwise stable society, even something evil, sinful, or just to be pitied – and excluded.

It isn’t that I don’t mind; I do! I hate it when people who have been friends find me ‘difficult’ to accept, or who can never take my word for it that I really am born this way, and happier after treatment. But I find the science of gender, and indeed the history in other cultures, enough explanation of how I came to be as I am.

The change is huge. My head is full of all the memories of my life, most of them good and a source of gratitude, at least for surviving. And I never again need to be something I am not, in order to feel accepted. And there it is. This is where the change finds itself, in authenticity. In authenticity you begin constructing the puzzle of life with the right pieces, the right way up. There is no other way. The inauthentic life hands you pieces from the wrong puzzle, so the picture and shape never form with any great reassurance.

Instead, I am becoming beautiful. A body ravaged and shaped by testosterone is not an auspicious start late in life, and yet I often don’t wear much make-up under my thinning hair, and more often wear jeans. No; it’s what I feel inside. I don’t care that anyone reading this says ‘Beautiful?! Have you seen yourself?!

What I compare is what I saw myself as just over three years ago, and what I see myself as now, seven months post surgery, and in a very comfortable lesbian relationship. The love I feel, share and give, and the love I receive, make me feel beautiful, because it is the most honest and open love I have ever known. It is a learning love and an unguarded love, and in that it is changing me for the better. Our future is no more predictable than any other relationship, but today, right now, it is a gift to be nurtured and celebrated.

For the first time in my life I have been wanted for the complete, authentic me that I am. No compromise. Not perfect by a very long way, annoying in a number of ways I am quite sure. But learning without lies, growing without guilt, developing without deceit. The experience is one I would describe as spiritual, which is why religious bigotry about my gender or my sexuality feels so hateful. It is spiritual, because it is all finding its place in my sense of purpose, of life fulfilment, and of belonging.

Allow me to add this familiar but meaningful poem by Mary Oliver: Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting–
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

This helps explain how I feel, recognising myself in the world, belonging as never before, having a place and being part of nature, not an aberration.

This is what I mean by change, this is what I mean by beautiful.

This is what it means to have found myself, and this is where my beginning truly lies.

Lessons from a journey

  • Posted on December 7, 2014 at 12:33 pm

As ever, my week gathers things in the plug hole as it drains away ready for another. Friends who are getting their Gender Recognition Certificates with some awe, others getting dates for appointments or surgery with relief. A youngster riding mountainous waves of gender dysphoria, facing a long journey and the knowledge that some things will never be completely right.

Four Christmases ago I learned for the first time that I was not alone, and now everywhere I look there are people learning they are not alone, but together. It isn’t any easier for all that, because the real journeys are not to and from gender clinics, psychiatrists, facing misunderstanding, rejection, or even love that tries but cannot understand. The real journeys are within ourselves, undoing teachings, received wisdom, self-perceptions, recognising colours in a world given to us as black and white.

Waypoint 1

No-one can do this for you, your journey is uniquely yours

There is is no carrying, no little scooter, no comfortable paladin, no shoulders to ride on. This journey is entirely under your own steam. Get used to it, because this is how life actually is. As a sheep in a dense flock, you can rest your feet and be carried along, chased by a dog to the same field or pen as last time. On this trip you may find help, support, even love. But you are, in the end, on your own. You began at your conception, you were born uniquely you, your mind is only yours, and your self-understanding entirely within yourself. You will die. Between now and then you can only live your own life, and discriminate between how much advice you receive is sensible and appropriate, and how much isn’t, and when there isn’t any, choose what to do by yourself. That simply means accepting complete responsibility for the way your life goes. Did I say simply? Most of us don’t do this terribly well. It is the greatest lesson you can learn, treasure it.

Waypoint 2

You cannot set the conditions

Much as you would like to customise this journey on your own terms, you cannot. This is not a journey through jungle with a machete, this is a journey where you weave your way through and may leave no path behind. Sometimes bent stems will help others see where you’ve been, and parts may become beaten tracks, but there are parts of your journey that are almost secret, because they are yours alone. You cannot ask for a journey of a particular kind, or a scenic route, or avoiding things you don’t like, and you can’t choose what you can take with you. Most trans people will be very firm that this journey itself is not a choice, it is a given, an imperative. Tough, that you can’t choose from a series of options like a package tour. Get used to the excitement.

Waypoint 3

You cannot choose the length of your journey

When you start a journey of transition, you might want it to be a manageable length, but the fingerboard saying ‘this way’ says just that. No miles or kilometres or years, just ‘this way’. If you want to see the end you must commit. Just that. You can turn back, or start again, whatever and whenever you choose, but only go forward with commitment and trust. If you do turn around, there isn’t a gate right behind you, only jungle, but you can get back where you started, more or less, if that’s what you decide. This is your journey, however many people are doing something similar, and it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Ask only: ‘What if I don’t?’ and get your boots on. Life is an extreme sport, if you really want to live it.

Waypoint 4

This journey is not really about getting somewhere, it’s about finding yourself

In a way we are seeking approval too much. Approval by psychiatrists, a diagnosis, clinical support, family, friends, society. The truth is, we are finding ways to be more acceptable, to speak, walk, talk, dress, gesture, even think, in ways that others will find easier. We work hard for them. But it is equally true, that what emerges is a deeper understanding of what we naturally are. Some trans women start off by going ultra-feminine as a counterbalance, and then gradually settle into jeans and sneakers, going largely without make-up – like most other women. And even being confident about the male aspects of their identities (we are all of us a balance of both). Our femininity is found inside, not in what we present to others through externals. The feminine comes out naturally in the end, released rather than imposed. We may think that clinical remedy in hormones and/or surgery is our destination, but it isn’t. It is important, even vital to our inner sense of authenticity, but it isn’t what gives us our gender. Gender is what we find when freed to live it. By making this journey your own, by understanding that, you can be freed into your authenticity. When you don’t need acceptance any more you will find it, because you found yourself behind what others told you you were, and then found people who like it.

Waypoint 5

The map we have been given was wrong

In Hereford Cathedral (UK) hangs Mappa Mundi, a unique 13th century map of the known world. It is really curious to us, and has very quaint ideas of the relative sizes and distances, with whole parts missing and some made up to fill the gaps: the draughtsperson (or committee!) must have thought ‘It must be like this’. Brilliant for its day, and ambitious, but it is not properly representative, and wholly inadequate for finding your way around the real world. We have social maps representing the way things are too, and some are way out of date, however many people are still using them. There are no automatic updates like with in-car sat-navs, and we who journey struggle with people who say the jungle is not just impenetrable, but should not be penetrated. Perhaps ‘there be dragons’. Within moments, minutes, or hours of our birth, we are given tags that place us on a social map. We are designated an outer identity and told that this is our inner identity because the two must be the same. This social Mappa Mundi has a part on gender that was filled in with inadequate understanding, and this waypoint is a big one. It takes a foundation away from you, and from almost everyone you know. But it is the map, not you, that held a wrong interpretation.

Waypoint 6

You will never see your world the same way again

Say goodbye to your ideas about the world. Whether it is your spiritual development and direction, your emotional response to things, your psychological understanding, your social interactions, your prejudices, beliefs, and even your abilities. Everything must become mobile. Those of you with smart phones, tablets and touch screens of all kinds, may be familiar with the method: if you want to move an icon, hold your finger on it until it wobbles, then drag it to where it belongs, reordering your tools to better represent your life. Unlike the smart phone technology, you will actually see life differently. Some wobbly things will disappear altogether, others will be things you never thought before. You will see other people completely differently, some with more colours, some with rather less than before. Ideas of acceptability, normality, creativity and stuckness will be transformed. You will be like an astronaut seeing the world from outside for the first time, its preciousness and its vulnerabilities, its size and its wholeness, its context and its loneliness. You will compare it with your own Mappa Mundi and begin to understand.

And if you grasp these waypoints, and doubtless many more, you will be filled with gratitude for a life of learning, however tough the jungle, and however much people call you back. And above all, you will find yourself. It may be very different from when you started.

Dressing up, dressing down

  • Posted on November 1, 2014 at 12:56 pm

Last night was Halloween: all hallows (saints) eve, originally for remembering the saintly dead. It has gone from a remembering or an honouring, to a commercial amalgam of all kinds of festival elements and large-scale imports of US activities, that currently is dishonouring of the dead and, increasingly, dishonouring of the living. The misuse of cultural identities in fancy dress has now extended to parody of disability and mental illness.

I would rather go with Samhain as it was (elements came into Halloween in order to Christianise it, including moving the date of All Saints Day). It is still useful to recognise that the old dies so that the new can come, revitalised. And even that the dead stays away. We may not doubt it, and ensure it with ritual, but being actively reminded of the cyclical nature of things in my opinion is good. This year in the UK the autumn season is blurring summer long past its expected end; the year is refusing to die in some ways. Shopping in shirtsleeves in November doesn’t seem quite right, and bees and butterflies are still around. The interwoven cycles that depend on the seasons and their timing will be distorted, and some dependencies of one species on another will break down as expected food sources aren’t there later.

A few weeks ago it did get chilly, and I swapped around my wardrobe and seasonal suitcase, pulling out the warmer clothes. There’s something of old friends about this: clothes you haven’t seen for a good six months. But outside my window, just as I feel uncertain about what to wear, the trees are still very green, some only just starting to turn yellow. They are just going with the flow: if the sunshine and rain are both there, it’s leaf time. Dressing down for winter will come, and I will dress up.

What is it with dressing up, though

I have rarely been to fancy dress parties, including Halloween. Quite apart from the gore and horror, I actually don’t like doing it! Ironic, surely? One of the big not-so-secret things about Halloween in the USA, is the occasion it has long provided for people to wear clothes of the ‘opposite’ gender. For some it may be opposite, but for people with unanswered gender identity questions, or who are closeted transgender, it is a chance to be hidden in plain sight, especially if they do it rather well. A friend showed me a photograph of his great grandfather, and friend who is dressed as a woman in a European national costume. The friend looks so completely natural that we have our doubts as to whether this is indeed just fancy dress. I included a poem Found Images in my first collection Realisations, on this theme some time ago.

And then so many trans* people can remember their earliest days of shucking around in their mother’s high heels, wearing girls’ things from the dressing up box. I did, a bit. And yet for some reason I always found dressing up (when other people were around) hugely embarrassing. Even the thought of it made me feel awkward. My wife might speak about dressing up as meaning dolled up, glad rags and all that. Of course, if you aren’t about to get your best dress out, there isn’t a lot you can do. Suit? Loud tie? Least-worn shirt that isn’t just a stripe? The jumper you would never wear for work?

The first time you fully dress to go out (or even share time with someone else) in clothes not of your assigned/presumed gender you can feel a mess of mixed feelings. Are you doing it inconspicuously; are you prepared to be noticed; are you comfortable? Because for sure you are making a statement and opening yourself up to anything from surprise to ridicule. If dressing up is already a hugely embarrassing thing anyway, allowing yourself to feel natural can be very hard. But what are you doing?

I can’t remember how many times I trotted out: ‘They aren’t women’s clothes, they’re my clothes!’ I was not dressing up at all, I was just wearing what felt right. My very first description to my wife, the day she returned after a weekend away, during which I had bought and worn women’s (outer) clothes for the first time, was simply: ‘it just felt perfect’. Fateful words.

Over the following two years, I felt too painfully close to the world of cross-dressing (transvestism), which I came to see clearly was not the right description for me. It was a curiosity for me that some would go to events dressed in male clothes, where ‘dressing facilities’ were available. They would socialise in clothes of their preference, then change and return home. Being dressed ‘as a woman’ was not dressing up (maybe sounding too child-like) but simply ‘dressing’. For me, that all seemed very sad, and I could never be comfortable with ‘dressing’ any more than I could with ‘dressing up’. Surely, all my clothes were simply my clothes.

What is it with dressing down?

More verbal ambiguity in English! Dress-down Friday is a workplace idiom (again from the US and Canada) meaning to go to work casual, instead of in business attire. It’s a relaxation to make people feel more comfortable and less formal. A dressing-down, on the other hand, is a reprimand of military origin, where insignia of rank are stripped off as punishment and demotion.

Being myself was never a matter of dressing up, fancy dress, or feminising. It was just a matter of getting used to clothes with more variety, more shape and style, more colour and pattern, and that felt right. But I wrote here long ago about how female to male transition increases the honours, whereas male to female transition is a removal of status, privilege and rank. So if anything my ‘dressing up’ was ‘dressing down’, even though it increased my own comfort enormously. My style at work was not executive (a woman dressing ‘up’ to look as important as a man) nor dressing down (jeans and tees), because I had no inclination to look like a man in either direction. I wanted actively to look different to how I was before, and so for three years I almost never wore trousers or jeans. And to be honest, female-cut jeans can be awkward!

Dressed up? Dressed down? Oh, the Grand Old Duke of York … and when he was only halfway … he was neither.

There are huge quandaries for people in transitioning. Your sense of identity is changing on the inside, and may not settle for some time. You may be gender queer, or androgynous – or anything. Are clothes too certain a statement, or not certain enough? Don’t go buying an expensive dress if you soon decide you are trans-butch! But people do worry about presenting at a gender identity clinic saying they are female, but dressed in jeans and jumper. Are you really full-time? Full-time what?

The bottom line is that for other people seeing you around, your clothes signify something, like feathers on a bird: brown=female, colourful=male (yes, birds are largely the other way round!). This should not mean, however, that you have to dress to impress. ‘Today I am dressed as a woman dressed as a man!’ should be OK, and in fact you might feel perfectly female in a suit, or in jeans and tee. But it seems that even ordinary clothes are a form of dressing up to communicate. I’m in this party.

Finding a balance

This morning there will be people around here who are exhilarated by cross-dressing on Halloween. This morning there will be wives, partners and friends breathing a sigh of relief that the clothes have gone away, and that the clear pleasure shown last night need not be seen again for some time. Grayson Perry is OK because Grayson/Claire is a flamboyant artist. Drag is OK because it’s mainly part of flamboyant gay culture. It’s dressing up. But please, please don’t tell me that what you did last night was not really dressing up at all.

Clothes define no-one, and they don’t classify anyone. They don’t give you an identity and they don’t change you. You change them. Some of us need to work with clothes freely, in order to find what really fits. Not to add insignia or status, but to dress down to what is really comfortable. This changes, and sometimes we need to be assertive (all the times I was the only woman in the room wearing a skirt) and sometimes we need to be clear. But it is for no-one else to use your clothes to define or categorise you either. Maybe you need to be smart and presentable for work, maybe you want to do fancy dress (but please think about why you are choosing what may be a parody of someone else’s life), maybe you want to be safe and practical. Be prepared to change as well, and to allow clothes to express you, not define you, because who and what you are is your business.

I objected a year ago to wearing a sexist brass band uniform, stood by my principles, and left. At the time, a compromise would have damaged my sense of identity. The first thing I did after surgery? I bought trousers; and now I wear trousers and jeans quite a lot. They fit, not just physically, but mentally too, and I am never mistaken for wearing them.

Dressing up? Dressing down? I just get up in the morning and get dressed. And I do have a posh frock or two, ready for those still-hoped-for special occasions with someone special. Ah well!