One year ago I wrote a piece about meeting a glamour photographer whilst still in the hospital where my clinical transition was completed. It was one of those strange things that life turns up from time to time, reminding you of the connectedness of all things. I have often written about my sense of greater belonging in the world, or rather belonging among all things, so I shouldn’t be surprised any more. But these completing meetings that reattach parts of life are good. Two years ago I returned to my teenage haunts in Derbyshire, deliberately to reconnect old and new. But still there are moments where I have cause to remember and reconnect my past without having to deny it, but rather be grateful for greater understanding. Without the past my story is incomplete, and sometimes now I have to be careful not to erase parts of it to avoid awkward questions. I have children: where are they? How was childbirth for you? You played with Meccano? Sorry – a boy’s grammar school? And do I say my son lives with my ex, or with his mother? And so on. I have a past, not just a present. There was no single point of separation from it.
This week I Facebook-friended a very familiar face, that of Caroline Cossey. It was a huge surprise for several reasons. Firstly that we are of very similar age, secondly that we (for all her fame) find ourselves on a level in this social space, and understand many shared experiences. Most of all, that for all the differences in our life stories, we have something, in the end, very much in common. I remember her modelling name of Tula. I had the Mayfair and Playboy issues (quite coincidentally, because I really didn’t buy that many!) that featured her (glamour, not porn in those days). I had a ‘respectable’ book too, of glamour photos that featured her. And I remember the front cover exposure of this incredibly beautiful woman who ‘used to be man’. At the time I simply stared in disbelief, and could not connect it with any possibility for myself. A wish; no more. I simply didn’t really understand how it could be possible, and saw it only as a choice. Caroline represented something unattainable, part of another world. Only twenty years later did I see the TV interviews she did, after being outed by the media. She was a victim, she was also a heroine, and I am here now in part due to all she went through and fought for.
Today, finally, I downloaded her book to my Kindle. 1992: My Story. Her story. History. Not my story, but many places where the stitches are familiar. The familiarity all starts with a very early childhood sense of not belonging. Of the world being a confusing place with nowhere to go, and of feeling there is no-one you can explain this to, no-one who will understand and make it all make sense.
That’s it. Not belonging. Something really not right about the way people tell you you should be, or feel, or behave, or dress, or play, or simply be …
Now imagine telling that story to people. They will tell you how they don’t feel they belong either: maybe they don’t play sports too well, or are very mediocre at music, bad at drawing, middle to bottom of the class academically, or simply introvert and never had many friends or anyone they felt understood them. So what is it, in the stories we tell as trans people, that is different? Yes, stories, because they are in many ways similar and many more ways individual. Telling the story, nevertheless is critical to accessing routes to change. Not all routes involve treatment. Not everyone wants hormones, let alone surgery. Many of us find some comfort in there being a diagnosis, by whatever name (but dislike the names anyway), because it is confirming to know that you aren’t alone. But what everyone must do, whose gender is not what others tell them it is, is tell their own story. I often wondered how easy it would be to learn the narrative that gets you through a gender clinic. I also know many who have been honest about being gender queer and who seek part-treatments, and who have found it very difficult to obtain it.
I walked around the playground in my first year of school, with a girl. I remember Jane Pringle very clearly as someone I trusted, as all the other boys competed on the climbing frame and shouted together. I felt she was someone like me, and that the boys were not. But that didn’t make me trans.
I talked in my first year of transition with people who hated their bodies, some who either could not look at themselves in a mirror, or feel comfortable to even touch their genitals. This was not my story. My sense of being in the wrong body was that I hated my impulses. I hated that if I put a dress on it didn’t make me look like a girl, even if it felt good inside. I looked at photos taken by Joanie Allum and I liked that a woman was glamourising women. I looked at pictures of Tula and found her dignified and beautiful. But I wasn’t spending my days hating my penis. As my life began expanding with the growing up of children, I learned to express myself in drawing, painting, writing and music. A lesbian friend reminded me that I could be desirable and made me feel more alive, after which I walked in sunlit woods at lunchtime from work, and imagined how wonderful it would be to be wearing a dress every summer day.
I really wished I could feel comfortable and find myself, but the more I tried to introduce the feminine desires I felt, the more I found resistance in my marriage. I was the only one who wanted this, and if I was going to do that, I was going to have to do it alone. And if I was going to do it at all completely, I was going to have to tell the story of my Gender Dysphoria. I was going to have to admit to some kind of disorder, a significant impairment, a medical diagnosis. I felt that I was having to reduce myself rather than grow more complete, drop any idea of my social status, of my achievements, almost to the point of being labelled as a freak. I was going to have to enter a bureaucratic sequence that ended in much of my documented history being sequestered away for my own protection. I was going to have to go through therapy, counselling, psychiatric assessment and examination, judgement and evaluation by people who knew nothing about me other than the story I would tell.
For many of us, there is some pressure to get the story ‘right’. People ask this on Facebook: I’m going to the gender clinic next week, what should I say to ‘get through’? Sometimes it feels that my individual story is not enough to convince the gatekeepers who are just looking for the right identity pass card. We should all be able to be honest enough and to tell many stories.
And the story we tell those closest to us? The one story, the classic story of being ‘born in the wrong body’? This can make us into liars and deceivers (Why didn’t you tell me?) rather than confused and unable to know. And if it isn’t the wrong body, why are you making such a big deal out of it? In 1992 Caroline Cossey described it as being ‘born between two sexes’. This is not the same as intersex conditions, which are (perhaps) more easily described through physical examination. Differences in physiological sexual development do not make life easier (it can be harder), and there is some evidence that many transsexual people may also have physiological determinants of their sense of gender, but which a clinician cannot prod and say ‘ah, yes’ to. For all of us, something biological happened in our initial development, for which there was no erratum in any Your New Baby manual.
And so we end up trying to tell our own stories, to people who would like it to be one simple story. We risk being disbelieved, being told that we simply don’t understand ourselves, or the way things are. Society doesn’t want us to have stories that don’t fit the way things are supposed to be. Either we are confused and keep silent and anonymous, or speak our stories and everyone else gets confused. There has to be a better way.
I don’t have gender dysphoria. I used to, in the sense that I described my non-belonging in the world, my self-understanding and my need to change, as being perceived as male whilst feeling more naturally female. The changes I made put it all right, so whatever you call the diagnosis, my gender, as I now show and live and express it, is correct. Had those changes not required clinical intervention, I may never have included the label in my story. But my own complete story is one of development, from confused little boy all the way through to happy woman.
My story, your story, Caroline’s story, every famous trans woman and pioneer’s story, and every anonymous trans man and woman’s story, is singular. But what we are all saying is that no-one can write or narrate our stories for us, let alone make it all the same story.