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Trans Children

  • Posted on October 30, 2016 at 8:32 pm

What nobody knows, is that I was a trans child.

Correction: what nobody knew.

And yet, no correction: I doubt if anyone, even now, can imagine that I was a trans child. I was confused, troubled inside, private. I misinterpreted everything about myself, I misunderstood, and coming into puberty, came to hate a kernel of myself. Ah, but I was a child.

‘Children can be so confused. Phases. It takes time. Don‘t make it worse by telling children about sex, about gender, about emotions.’

This last week or two, there have been trans children in the news. Or rather, there have been the parents of trans children in the news. If I want to be scrupulously fair, there have been parents of children who have said they are trans, in the news. And in the news because the parents are accusing others of telling children that they can be trans, and therefore confusing them.

Experts? Who needs them? A refrain of our times, it seems. A lefty plot is undermining our values …

But at least these children are being made aware of their possibilities. Children are not harmed by allowing them to find an expression they find more in alignment. You cannot make a boy wear girl clothes in any way that will leave them compliant and happy, if they feel it is completely wrong. You cannot make a child trans any more than you can make them gay or lesbian. Trans is not a behaviour.

They will not, they cannot, be clinically harmed through this freedom, because at the very most they will be given hormone blockers to slow down puberty while they find their identity safely. The alternative, to grow breasts that must be compressed and later removed, or to drop a voice that can never be ‘unbroken’, and a skeleton that will proportion wrongly – is a cruelty far in excess of potential ridicule for perhaps having worn a dress for two years, then changing their mind. Gender queer is also OK. Gender denial, and binary enforcement, these are the attitudes that do the harm.

And we know from children surgically assigned a convenient gender from birth (accident – look up David Reimer, for example – or intersex), that nothing will change the felt gender of an individual. This is the true abuse of children in matters of gender and sex: to presume you know better than they could tell you about themselves.

I was a trans child

When I was growing up, a giraffe was a giraffe. In fact until this year, no-one realised that there are four species, which makes the surviving population of each much smaller. Most people still don’t know, but would believe you when presented with the scientific analysis. And yet transgender research? Why should that be different? I also remember the catch-you-out joke at school: ‘what was the world’ biggest continent before Australia was discovered?’

We could continue teaching the single-species giraffe in schools. We could ensure schools never talk about gender, that they never separate it from sex. We could go on ignoring that maybe as many as 2% of the population have an intersex condition. We could go on teaching that gender is just a personal preference, that it can be induced or socialised. But it just doesn’t work that way. To teach otherwise is to distort the facts. To not teach it at all, is to leave society to make its mind up, as if our existence were an opinion, or to be erased. To forbid teaching the true nature of gender would be to consciously damage the life chances of many thousands of children.

Nowadays, children can look up online how they feel about themselves. They can communicate with other children and come to understand themselves in context. They can even find that being non-binary, or queer, is a perfectly acceptable state of being, even if that, too, is tough to live in a binary world. Schools and teaching are not just about the trans kids, but all the others growing to make the next generation. Their understanding and acceptance matters just as much. They need not to be the haters and hiders of the future. We need honesty.

No-one was directly dishonest with me. I honestly think no-one around me knew anything at all. Girly boys were sissies, or worse, might be homosexual. Tomboy girls were just that, and joined in boys’ games more easily anyway. A girl could wear jeans, women wore trousers or ‘slacks’. Only a Scotsman could wear a kilt. Anything else was seen as a fetish or a perversion. In this context, no child (like me) was ever going to risk talking about the inseparable sex and gender.

This is how I was a trans child who was never seen as a trans child. I did not become trans because I discovered the diagnosis of gender dysphoria. Australia was there long before Captain Cook appropriated it. And there were always four species of giraffe, maybe more.

So whenever you read or hear about, or meet a transgender person, whether they are ‘out and proud’ or secretive, you are seeing a trans child grown up. Many will be able to express clearly that they knew from a very early age. Many will have made the transition much later in life. Most will have either lost the childhood they could have lived, or suffered and struggled for not fitting in. For most, parental understanding or not, will have played a major role. This means that you will find it hard to picture the trans adult as a child in their current gender.

My birth certificate says that I was born a girl.

I still think that most people will feel that this is not quite correct.

I was a girl, who played with Lego, Meccano, made radios, had a model railway. I had ‘Action Man’, but preferred the frogman and spaceman, and medic, to the guns. He married my sister’s Sindy doll, if I remember right.

I was a girl who had to wear grey shorts and school cap, envying the skirt and beret my sister had.

I was a girl who was sent to (achieved …!) a boys’ grammar school. Which thankfully later went co-ed and moved into the girls’ grammar school buildings.

I was a girl who wanted to spend break times with other girls, and who partnered another girl in chemistry practicals, and played French horn with another girl on piano. (Quite normal now, this was not how it generally was then.)

I was a girl who desperately needed the close company of other girls above boys, and others worried about this.

Knowing you’re not like other boys, is not good enough. Knowing you are not a boy (and that this is OK) is important – even if you eventually work out you are not a girl either.

Let me be that girl

Even now, I want you to understand that however you dressed me, addressed me, or thought about me, it was wrong. Not deliberately, back then, but still it was mistaken.

Un-knit your memories and allow me to fully own that girl.
I need better than two separated lives,
held in your perceptions.
I need to be Australia before Cook.
By your best endeavours, recognise that
I am not your discovery.

And when you read, hear or see about transgender children, please denounce the media who perpetuate their own distaste and hatred, and understand that many like me did not survive – because of course we all know there is only one giraffe. And we all need to know, share and teach this, properly.

It’s not what you remember, but how

  • Posted on December 1, 2015 at 10:35 pm

A friend of mine has been writing what we hope to be a book, with some contributions from me, interleaving experience and reflection with research. It’s not about being anything, but the meaning there is in it, as it is. In some ways it’s a challenge. ‘How about a chapter on your experience of gender dysphoria?’ Sounds innocent enough; we both know that it isn’t a generalisation but a personal experience, just my narrative and my interpretation of it.

I had a go. By the end of a day of hard writing and thinking, I wasn’t particularly satisfied. How many different ways could I have told the story as a chapter (not a whole big boring book)? Rather a lot of trans people have written their own books, and some are really good, and helped me. I have also seen some that are not so good, and are a reflection that many of us want just to tell our story, though we are not all writers. I guess if I were asked to tell my story to several people with very different backgrounds, I would tell it differently each time. So what matters most to me?

The more I think back, the more my story connects up, as I remember little things, the circumstances of the times, the pressures not to speak of certain things, the need to conform, and even the lack of sufficient understanding to think that I might not have been what everyone told me I was. On one level my story is a happy life. On another it is life characterised by a constant fear. On one reading it is very singularly my own, on another terribly familiar. But the reason that I have this story at all has an absolutely common thread, understood by every transgender person.

I am looking forward to seeing the file ‘The Danish Girl’, and have seen the trailer, and a few interviews with the key actor playing Lili Elbe, Eddie Redmayne. If the trailer made me cry, I’m sure I won’t make it through the film. The big trigger, I expect, will be that first unavoidable confession of knowing your gender is different. The way I phrased the feeling of falling into that realisation, was ‘it just feels perfect’.

The trouble with revisiting the story after several years, is that having settled very perfectly, you can still remember that there was real happiness in your life before too. I don’t want to lose that, but neither is it easy to embrace. If I look at photos of my daughter’s wedding a few months ago, or of my ex-wife looking really happy, giving the wedding speech, her being there and not me … or remember too vividly past Christmases … or holidays, or at pictures of happy homes we made and shared … and … and … Then I remember that but for one thing about me, everything was good.

The story of Lili Elbe, and of many other people who have transitioned, is one of devotion. Love somehow survives the hurt and carries on. Here, there will be pain and loss too, but something mattered too much to let it go. And this is where too much reflection and retelling the story doesn’t help. I was one of the majority who lost their marriage and family, and my deepest regret is that it was for no other reason than my gender. I still recall saying: ‘I can’t walk away from this. You can. Please don’t.’

Rage spoils memories

I was trying to remember something I said when writing the chapter, and from searching around, came across a few pages I wrote at the beginning of transition, when I knew it was all over with my wife and family. It was rage in black and white. Rage that I was not allowed to be angry, that I had to be the one who must understand how difficult this all was for everyone else. It was rage that this one thing that made me feel perfect at last made everything else fall apart. That I could come to a clear understanding, and that in doing so I was no longer wanted as a partner, companion, parent, even though I was still me, crawling out from under a blanket of fear where I had stayed for the sake of everyone else.

And behind that rage was a whole lifetime of tender loving memories that felt completely betrayed. Yes, I had to understand how difficult this was, how impossible for those closest to me to sustain. So every time I hear of love enduring through transition, I remember. Memories of rage? Memories of betrayal? Memories of happiness? Memories of love?

Just as I could think after writing my chapter, of all the ways I could have told the story, so there are many ways of remembering. And it is hard to remember how I had to walk away, not from my own love but from a door closed by others. I think it takes a lot longer than I had thought, to wipe the soot and dust off good memories, so that they don’t simply hurt, but become treasures. I struggle sometimes with talking about a good life that I had, as if by confessing their goodness I want them back. I don’t, because they are long past, and they were all a shared possession, not just mine. And I don’t ever want to live with fear again, least of all fear of my authentic self being a reason not to be loved or wanted. So somehow I need to become able to see photographs, read things and remember, in a different way, where the ending isn’t part of every moment. I will get there, but it has been a reminder to me that just as you can tell your story to other people in many ways, so you can to yourself. Mine is not a sad story, just a brilliant chapter with a very sad ending.

I really don’t want to live with any resentment or anger, and largely it has gone. I simply want to feel gratitude for everything good that has happened in my life. Right now it is good, I am grateful for the love that I share, for the life my partner and I are building together, and for all the new experiences we bring to each other. Life is all about learning, all the way, beginning to end, and after so much telling over the past few years, now I still need to learn how to remember well and safely, because the story continues.

Change and impermanence

  • Posted on August 9, 2015 at 10:25 am

I lay on the beach, a slight warm breeze and a hot sun making my skin aware of its wholeness. Salt water was drying as the sea slowly drew nearer my toes with the tide. I have lived by the sea for twenty years but rarely ventured in. I think I have always balanced its cold unpredictability against my uncertainties of how strong a swimmer I am, and how much I like cold water. I remember still one Easter, at about the age of 13, jumping into an icy river from a snowy bank and losing my breath. It was teachers showing boys what it is to be a man. That isn’t what I learned. Ten years ago I impressed myself by swimming about one kilometre on solo visits to the pool. Impressed, but not convinced.

Today I had been persuaded to get into the sea, and was the first to dive into the waves. And here I was, fully aware of my body and how right it felt, in public, on the beach, in a swimming costume and feeling complete. Another first. I fully understand the Buddhist tenet of impermanence, that everything is in a constant state of flux. I protested too long that I was not changing, and that I was ‘just the same’. In some ways I am, and in many ways I have moved on far from where I was just a year ago. My confidence in the sea was in part due to the fact that I now swim 2.5 km in the pool without feeling exhausted. And also because on our recent holiday, we visited a thermal spa with a number of increasingly hot saunas and an outdoor cold pool. Right now, I am facing things that challenge my boundaries (my ideas of things that can’t change) more easily. Maybe the experience of transition made a lot more seem possible. Maybe the previous feeling of impossibility in ever resolving my inner conflicts made me less willing to create change in other ways.

I stood uncomfortably in a cocktail bar, beat music hammering a tired and aching head, surrounded by glassy-eyed people enjoying the jerky dance that one square metre and a cocktail glass in one hand allows. Was I just too tired? Am I too old? Both may be contributing factors, but I have never felt comfortable in this reality that isn’t really. As yet, that hasn’t changed as yet. I was fascinated by the dramatic hyper-efficient moves of the bar staff as they performed a chemistry more complex than I have ever done. I thought of the money changing hands. I thought of the lives behind the bizarre dress in groups out to celebrate maybe a wedding or a birth. I thought of the empty silent bar tomorrow and a thousand heavy heads earned from the rewards of Monday to Friday in unloved jobs. And how the bar staff feel after many hours every night in the loud darkness and constant flow where you can barely hear the orders. And I knew that for me, as yet, this discomfort has not changed. Maybe I don’t want it to.

This morning is bright and sunny. It will be hot. I watch it from the window, unable to sleep long enough to repair the night. It is also still wedding season. Many weddings featured in our conversations over a birthday dinner, there are family and friends, and my colleague at work. I was wearing my pearl earrings, simply because they matched a non-pearl necklace in colour. I feel they have no value, as I remember buying them from a shared account, to mark 30 years of marriage just weeks before leaving. I hope my daughter will have a sunny day like today in two weeks time, for her wedding. I am wondering who I can ask to take and sneak a few photographs for me. It reminds me that once, I was starting out, with all the hopes of a lifelong commitment, of learning, sharing, developing the expected lifetime of change. To a program, to a happy conclusion, and to passing the same expectations on to the next generation. This was how life was to be. The right kind of change; but I wouldn’t have called it impermanence. No – I think I would have used the word permanence.

I interpret, because I don’t know, that my daughter is angry that her father must always have known what he was going to do. Maybe she feels betrayed and that I lied, and took something essential away from her. Whether that makes her feel that I changed beyond recognition, I also don’t know. But this is a change that she didn’t want to change her life. People give me encouraging words, that one day she will come round. I don’t even know what ‘come round’ means. That she will change her mind, or that she will change? Or that something else will change her?

I wish I could talk to her about change. Marriage will change her. If she has a family of her own, it will change immeasurably. She has no more guarantees of permanence than I had, and it is only by changing that she will be able to find a complete and fulfilling life. She and her husband will change over time, and sometimes change isn’t
what happens to you, but what you decide you can do. I hope they can change together, that they will allow changes in their lives and treat it as bonding rather than dividing. Most of all, I hope she comes to understand how important the response to change can be, that it represents growth, not loss. Maybe one day she can lie on a beach and know that her life changes have made her more than she was. I hope she can go on pushing her boundaries (I’m still not sure about the skydiving!) and letting go. And maybe one day she will stand glassy-eyed in a cocktail bar and know that she finds herself more truly in solitude. Maybe that’s where we may meet again.

Meanwhile, from this sunny place, I want to wish her well. I wish I could, but I cannot even get a message to her that she will accept or read. I cannot change that, but yes, it may also be impermanent.

What about the children?

  • Posted on June 20, 2015 at 10:48 pm

OK, so there’s a lot going on in my life still. My partner and I are stepping into another phase of not so much coming out, as realising that disclosure is a complicated package. Disclosure in this case is unwrapping the fact that we are a same-sex couple from two different countries and back-cultures, of very different age, where one of us is transsexual, a matter requiring explanation in its own right. That’s difficult when I am unfamiliar with German websites that tell a clear and factual account of what trans anything or everything means. I wouldn’t want to introduce any confusion over cross-dressing and drag and how I am. I even need still to explain to people in English that half the trans spectrum is what you do and half is what you are.

My crash course in learning German from the rudiments of 30 years ago will not equip me in time to hold that meaningful sensitive conversation with the other family …

The bigger problem may actually be our age difference. We have to acknowledge our own anxieties about the distant future, because the raw numbers are unavoidable, and temper them with ‘now’, and ‘love’ and ‘kindness’. It is an interesting perspective in its own right, because I suspect we both eschew the standard expectation of ‘meet in your twenties, marry and live happily ever after’. We both start from base-points different from this, we both look at our pasts and wonder why it took so long to get where we are, and want to do or achieve so much more. What we have now in each other is much more than falling in love, and we want to do something with it, not have to worry about decades ahead, nor have to explain our unusual combination as partners. We must use our time well, and make these the best years of our lives, because they are dynamic and good.

Whatever parts of our unusual partnership cause others concern (lesbian, intellectual, mixed-age, mixed-nationality, transsexual etc.) we should have no requirement to make anyone else feel comfortable with it. This theme has run through a lot of my blog narrative from the start. I have been very open in order to avoid misunderstanding, to inform, and to head off opinionated gossip. I have been an education, and now together, we are being an education. Bugger ‘what’ we are in any aspect – we have a deep respect and love for each other, and a great ease in living together. That in itself is more than many have. But whether it’s my ‘Midas touch’ description, or last week’s disingenuous interjection in the theatre, we are always among people who would prefer us to conform to their ideals, even if they say we are not problematic.

Which brings me back to the ‘think abut the children’ phrase that gets trotted out as some kind of moral protectionism, when all it is in fact is a human shield against adult prejudice and fixity. Whether the concern is about gender or sexuality, it matters for all those transgender and transsexual children whose status is at last being understood, and all those children who are educated and informed enough to know that being born non-heterosexual is not immoral. Gender and sexuality are not acquired and are non-contagious. People who are non-cis-heteronormative are not a movement or a lobby and we do not undermine society. And yet we are compared to nuclear weapons, blamed for earthquakes, and for violence in society through undermining the moral fabric. We are not actually liked for being the way we were born, because we challenge cultural ideals.

We are not the children our parents thought we were, so often. They, who were once children too, acquired an idea of what would make them ‘successful’ and applauded parents, and we may disappoint them. If we are very young, we place them in an awkward position with other parents and with their own parents and friends. If we are adult, we challenge their expectations of being proud parents, or perhaps grandparents. The core message to all of us is that we must listen to children and not assume we are right and they are too young to know. Further, that by impressing our negative views on them about sexuality and gender being a lifestyle choice, we are suppressing the truth and risk making them repressed as individuals. Children need no protection against same-sex couples, nor against transgender people. They need to know, so that they don’t repeat the same prejudice and fear, and are free to find their authentic selves. Only by doing so can they grow up as whole people, without the struggles that I and my partner are still facing as mature adults in family, peer circles and society at large.

An inconvenient truth

  • Posted on June 18, 2015 at 10:42 pm

Congratulations! You’re the subject of my blog this week! 12,000 page reads a month; that means you’re almost famous! But don’t worry; sorry, what’s your name? (Just so I don’t get it wrong.)

Things you wished you could have said. Or I could have just said ‘hakuna matata’. We were sitting in the interval at The Lion King in London. Yes, sharing a little affection, but not so totally engrossed, if you understand. It was a celebration day out for being together six months and for having moved in completely together at last. A kiss didn’t seem amiss in the circumstances.

‘Excuse me ladies, but can you cut it out?’ came from behind, followed by the usual ‘I’ve got nothing against it personally, I don’t have a problem with it’ (of course not), ‘but there are two nine year old girls here.’

We were both quite taken aback. I’ve had direct abuse and objection both as trans, and as a woman, and I guess I hadn’t expected, after everything I’ve been through, objection to being openly lesbian. Surely times have moved on? What annoyed me most was not being able to have the conversation – like ‘maybe your daughter or her friend will come out as lesbian when they’re older, and need to know it’s normal?’, or: ’But you do have a problem with “it”, don’t you? Why is that?’. I really don’t understand why love and affection between women is immediately perceived by some as some display of kinky sex, or perversion, especially when media, films and the Internet are sexualised in so many less tasteful ways. Who needs protecting from two women kissing, when kissing between different-sex people is everywhere and OK?

God knows what he would have said if I had replied: ‘It’s OK, I used to be a man!’

The show was absolutely brilliant. The lionesses triumphed over evil, and well, it was ‘pride on stage’, wasn’t it! But that little interjection tainted our day a bit, and made us think. We had just watched a street performer in union jack underpants give a suggestive performance constructed around his unique ability to be sandwiched between two beds of nails whilst a beefy man from his audience stood on top of him. What about the children?!

Love between people of the same sex (or gender) is probably encoded before birth, according to familial-trait research published last November, so if anything, we are an education in the way things are, and by being open, others will know that it is natural and OK to love someone of the same sex and/or gender.

This same point was made in a mainstream news article this week by a lesbian teacher – or rather a teacher who is lesbian. She learned that hiding her sexuality was not just an invitation to gossip among colleagues and students, but had led to direct discrimination resulting in loss of a job, when she refused to effectively renounce her sexuality. (She was asked directly to behave ‘less lesbian’, despite being of the very femme variety.) Her realisation, while helping to make a documentary, was to understand that being open was an education and an enabler to colleagues and students alike: it is OK to be LGBT.

Today an article circulated about a town in Baltimore, where the local residents have written to a woman who had a rainbow-coloured display in her garden (yard) saying that it was too gay: ‘this is a Christian area and there are children’. I am still unclear about the children argument: are these people worried about corruption? Or that LGBT natures are contagious? Or that we are perverted, predatory even? This latter ‘fear’ lies behind the US ‘bathroom bills’ and gender-policing of loos. The result last week was a cis woman in the US suing a company for being roughly ejected from a ladies’ loos by a security man (yes, in the ladies’ loos) because she looked too masculine or butch.

No good can come from this objection to LGBT people being open.

Why do we have ‘closets’ at all? Why do LGBT people live in them? If your minority identity is race, you can’t hide it, you have to live with it (and any prejudice) and suffer with it, forcing society ultimately to come to terms with racial diversity. Sexual diversity has found greater acceptance, but unlike race, people can still say ‘be what you like so long as you do it in private’, as if being LGBTQIA… is shameful. It is not! Consequently, trans people top the league in attempted and successful suicide rates. People dare not ‘come out’ for fear of livelihoods, loss of family, social status, even their lives.

Closer to home, I know that I may be acceptable in appearance, but that I am nonetheless noticeably different. I cannot pretend not to have trans history, and therefore there are times (such as ‘meet the parents’) where I need it to be known that I am trans and that it’s OK. Also, I have no intention of avoiding holding hands or kissing as a lesbian woman, just to save upsetting someone else who would not be upset by a hetero couple doing the same.

One morning we were saying goodbye on our ways to work, with a hug and a kiss on the street corner. A young woman came by, murmured her approval, then turned back and smiled and said how sweet we were. Now that’s nice; that’s kind; that’s real.