I don’t believe anyone trans comes out with complete confidence, ready-made, knowing all the best replies, happy to learn what you got wrong when someone ‘reads’ you and is rude (‘Hey! Thanks! That’s really useful! I’ll remember that next time.’), and shrugging off all the uncertainties of living in a new space. But it is one thing to learn to walk in heels, lift your voice naturally and believe in it, and quite another not to walk among strangers in the street, but face your best friend and tell them the news.
I have been extraordinarily comforted by friends who have asked about the nail polish, or the lengthening hair, and have listened to the short version of my story, and not just embraced something quite novel to their experience, but congratulated me on my honesty and courage, and wished me well. I have no problem talking to anyone who wants to know, even if in the end neither of us would say we quite understand! And so far, touch wood, no-one outside my family has criticised, doubted or scorned. OK, I don’t know what they say when I’ve gone, but on the whole the gossip grape-vine has remained quiet. Is it just that all along I’ve been a jolly nice person, a helpful go-out-of-my way sort of person? That I get involved, that I care? Maybe. And now I hope I just go on being all that, rather than getting angry, hurt, distrustful and self-protecting about being different.
Instead, I am in some ways being deliberately vulnerable. I don’t want to get locked inside a thick skin that changes my shape just so I don’t get hurt. I shall get hurt, of that I have no doubt, and some will call me naïve. But there’s a bit of me that says if I get seen to stand up for myself without getting bitter, it might help someone else do the same. If trans people are seen to be damaged, hurt and grouchy, they will never just be normal to everyone else. I’m OK with being trans. Even though it might cost pretty much everything I hold dear.
But telling your best friend? Ah.
Telling your wife and family is sort of inevitable, and kind as you are, however helpful in explaining, sharing books, talking it through, you know you have changed something pretty fundamental. (Have I broken a contract? For richer, for poorer … for maler or femaler?) Whatever I want, they have choices too, and they might break my heart. And there is nothing much I can do about that, because they have to know, in every detail, and forecast where I might be going before I even know myself.
Best friends are different. How much I say and when is up to me. We all say that friends who walk away are not really friends at all, but we know the ones we really don’t want to lose – because friends are our support network, the place we go when even things at home aren’t so hot. Independent advice, outside perspective and all that. And some friends are good for one thing, some for another. Best friends are those we expose our vulnerabilities to – and coming out as transgender is an extremely vulnerable time. If I tell a particular friend, it could make me feel a lot worse, a lot less supported, and lose me a key point in my network of a friend who can explain and support me to other friends.
I got to a point where a number of friends knew, among a lot of others who share my social space that did not. And the worst thing would be for a best friend, a close friend, to find out in the wrong way and feel I hadn’t trusted them. I did – but that didn’t stop me feeling scared to lose them or make them more distant. After all, I do appreciate that a lot of us, when challenged about being associated with something unusual, can suddenly lose commitment to avoid criticism. And being transgender is still like infecting or contaminating other people’s lives.
So for a long time I knew I had to bite the bullet with a particular friend: possibly change a friendship forever, with a history of deep sharing in difficult times over a number of years. And I did lose sleep over it, and I did put it off, and several times I nearly said what I had to say, only to duck at the last moment. I couldn’t ask for an urgent meeting because that would set a scare agenda; I just had to decide to make it the next available slot together.
Here’s some useful advice if you’re in the same place: tell a few other people that this is what you intend to do. Tell them your fears, and cut your escape route, knowing that at least there might be a bit of sympathy if it all goes wrong, because they are going to ask you how it went.
I told my best friend over coffee a few days ago. I said she hadn’t said anything about my nails, hair, bracelets, rings … the day she turned up in my garden, and my trousers and t-shirt weren’t quite male enough, and my toes were pink. ‘Oh!’ she said ‘I didn’t think I needed to say anything. I thought you were just expressing your feminine side. I’ve always known that was strong in you.’
For her, I am just the same person, illuminated a bit more starkly perhaps, but my happiness is part of the friendship, and now I know I have another pillar in my life for when things don’t go quite so well. The transgender experience is one of vulnerability, and sometime you can feel like the butterfly at the end of summer, but it’s the colours that keep you going, hopping flowers on the breeze instead of chewing leaves. And my friend has made some things suddenly seem a lot easier. I thank her from the bottom of my heart.