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What is a sense of gender?

  • Posted on March 28, 2012 at 5:29 pm

A section in my book Realisations is called ‘A Sense of Gender’, and it is a really curious thing. What is it to be self-aware of being a man or being a woman? Is it just a feeling of consonance with others who have bodies like yours? Or perhaps dissonance with those who don’t? That seems a bit thin somehow. I am sure that with a bit of research I could unearth psychological studies that would dip into the gendered mind, the ways we think, that place us more comfortably in one camp or the other. Except that drags us kicking into the binary conflict that simply doesn’t suit everyone.

Early in realising who I really was, I used to play this mind game: if it was a ‘Manday’ rather than a ‘Chooseday᾿ and I closed my eyes against what I was wearing, how did I feel? Hmm. Nothing really. And to begin with in my female clothes I looked as different to myself as I would to any friend. Not bad, but certainly different. Did that make me feel more like a woman and less like a man underneath? Well, it helped.

Close the eyes. Ask: what does it mean for anyone to feel like a man / woman?

There is a physical awareness, perhaps a bra wire is digging in or trousers feel tight, or maybe the lightness of a dress brushes the skin differently, and parts of your body feel the particular familiarity or unfamiliarity of something. But that doesn’t make me feel like a man or like a woman. It doesn’t make me feel gendered or placed in a role or a persona at all. I just feel like me. How do you feel?

Now put me in a party. There are the women clustered in one place, and there are the men in another. Where do I head to feel most congruent? Off to join the men and share the latest sport / cars / job news? Or to the women to find out what’s really going on, how they are feeling, what’s going on in their families? Join the first group and I don’t really know what to talk about, unless we turn to a passion like the environment, or poetry. Join the others and I am an outsider; perhaps the conversation changes because a man is present.

A man? What man? I look around and then realise it must be something about me. I have a sense of gender from the inside, everyone else has a perception that is different. My gender is visibly in the wrong kind of body. It isn’t even ambiguous enough, because I got to wear the grey trousers and the striped shirt.

There have been too many days when I have been obliged to present as a man when wanting to write about being female. What happens if someone comes up on Skype, I have the cam on, and Andie, the strongly female friend is sitting there in the wrong trousers, perhaps even unshaven, with man specs? Is that a betrayal of my sense of gender? I judge not, because I am already uncomfortable, not even looking at myself.

What do you feel when you wake up in a morning. OK, certain things can happen to a man that remind him of his gender at that time of day. But aside from that, are we aware? Does it matter? No, so long as we are content with what happens next and get on with the day, doing what we do naturally.

Kate Bornstein is producing a new edition of her Gender Workbook, and has been Tweeting regularly to gain a contemporary view of how people feel about aspects of transgender. Central is the question ‘how do you identify?’. I was not alone in a very assertive, ‘I know what I am not!’ Interesting, because I hear it more and more. I am not a man. I’m quite happy to be called transgender, but do not call me a man! It isn’t that I disown what I have lived as, and I don’t hate men. I just know I do not belong to that tribe.

Which is interesting.

For some time, mainly because it was so easy to do so, I went to the Brighton Buddhist Centre to practice meditation. Mindfulness. Being present, in the moment. Just sitting, being aware of how things are. And in that state of mind, I am aware of a physical state of being a woman. Funny that.

Over a year ago, a friend did some therapy with me in similar vein, and my first comment afterwards, reviewing the inner experience, was that throughout I had visualised myself as a woman in a white dress. I don’t know why. It wasn’t suggested, it wasn’t in the commentary. It wasn’t supposed to be there at all. The only guidance I had was to gain a sense of belonging, and to listen to myself. And there I was.

Now, having just presented myself and my intentions, in the space of a week, to well over 100 musicians, and in public as it were, I had another unexpected experience. My previous blog post covered the matter of whether it was courage or not. No, this was an awareness that somehow, enough people were just recognising what I was saying, and more than just respecting that, were welcoming me as a woman. I am perfectly aware that when I appear for the first time in that last bastion of my male life, many may find it hard to adjust. I will be a novelty, a curiosity, a not-quite-sure and what do I say to – her? But as the pronouns started to be used already, and people were writing my new name, I was so deeply at home with myself, it felt like I had been dragging an anchor and now it held.

Yes, I know what a sense of gender means – though I’m not sure I’m a whole lot better at describing it.


  • Posted on March 25, 2012 at 11:55 am

As so often, several little things come together with a common theme, and invite reflection. This morning Jane Fae had written some comment for the Scottish Sun about her own experience of transphobic violence. Nothing new, and sadly commonplace. Last night Grrl Alex added to her blog ‘Familiarity breeds acceptance’, dealing with transphobia on trains. And yesterday, more fellow musicians told me how brave and courageous I was to come out by addressing the entire band.

All of this speaks of the motivation, the response and the inevitability or the trans life. As Jane said: ‘I’ve got used to a level of violence which, had you said to me this will happen every couple of months, I’d have been horrified.’ I can’t think that anyone would actually choose to be trans in a starkly gender binary society. But we don’t choose to be like this: it really isn’t anything to do with lifestyle. But do we have a choice at all? In a way, most of us have chosen for considerable time: to repress our true nature and live as best we can in the physically-apparent gender. Coming out trans is the result of giving up that choice. Hence what happens to us isn’t altogether avoidable if we want to live normally. So where was the courage? In the life lived-best-but-wrong, going against the current, trying daily to not feel uncomfortable, out of place as an outsider? Or in giving up and then taking whatever is cast at us? At best it is a different kind of courage.

Grrl Alex reflected on dealing with society’s curiosity, not just deliberate transphobia. We can forgive ignorance, but we can give understanding. A trans person on a train is cornered, and it does take courage to travel in a way that leaves you tremendously vulnerable and trapped. Alex’s book relates her own early experiences with trains, and I have had the feeling of surprise in going for a quiet late train, and arriving to find it was football night and packed with striped scarves. Again, no choice. But Alex raises the question of vulnerability and courage. If you act very ‘just leave me alone!’ you can become a target, whereas if you address the ignorant attacker honestly, confident in who you are, you can realise that the problem was really transphobiaphobia (coined perhaps by Richard Beard in Becoming Drusilla, which I recommend). So clearly an active courage can be a great help – so long as you want to be out and visible, and not pretend to be stealth (ie, so convincingly gender binaried that you are indistiguishable from cis-gendered people) when you are not. Alex resolves this by being herself (and I always hesitate at pronouns for Alex) and rather than being brave, is assertive (the blog and cover of the Grrl Alex book speak for themselves).

Which brings us to me. I chose on several occasions this past week, to stand up in front of between 30 and 40 people at a time who have long known me as a man, and effectively say ‘I am a woman’ – with a bit of explanation. For ages I scrubbed off nail varnish, changed my watch, as well as everything else, after a day lived as a woman, just to go and play the trumpet. And I admit there was no courage there. I tired of that, and soon people were noticing – even admiring – my choice of colours, which maybe matched a bracelet also left on. I relaxed. That wasn’t courage, it was just starting to be myself. And anyone who asked, increasingly got a direct reply that I was transgender. Was that courage? No, it was just getting safer to be honest. Compared with the first time I went out as a woman, speaking in public about myself as a woman was almost trivial. So I protest now that I am only doing what I have to do and that, being authentic, it is just being honest. I don’t have a choice, when the alternative is a denial of self.

So why am I so visible? Is it just that I can never be pretty enough to ‘go stealth’? Maybe age is on my side after all! No. I have shared with people around the world what it is like to be trans, and have found so many scared people, in very unforgiving circumstances, or in fear of what they might have to admit to themselves and to partners that, like Grrl Alex, I feel compelled, at least for now, to say ‘It’s OK to be trans. You don’t have to be a 100 per cent man or woman, indistinguishable from cis-gendered folk. This is part of normality and the way the world is.’

So if I show any courage at all, it is because I want to give a little more confidence to people who need it in order to realise themselves. I can’t make life easier for them or for me. This is tough. This can tear your emotions apart like nothing else. But it is OK, whoever in your life can’t cope with it. And it is far, far better than trying to pretend everything is fine in gender-land when it is not.

Courage is what you have when you enter a place, not where safety is not guaranteed, but where you are positively likely to get threatened. These are places we simply must eradicate, but they won’t go until trans people do stand up and be visible, be assertive, write in our newspapers, blog and live normal lives – like people of different races, or gay and lesbian and anything else between increasingly can.

Turning the page: life reflected in poetry

  • Posted on March 23, 2012 at 4:19 pm

Little can be as emotional and emotive as gender identity. It’s the heart of being – it’s just that for most of us there is never a question to ask, so never a disturbance. And when it’s someone else we know, we can choose a comfortable distance. I know that some of the very many people I have told will be more comfortable not having to know what being transgender is all about. Like being gay or lesbian. ‘Just get on with it, we’ll leave each other alone, no questions, I don’t need to know.’ So long as there is respect in that, I really don’t mind. After all, in a few years time my new normal will be an old normal, and I will blend back into the scenery. I will have new friends and colleagues who know me no other way. They may never know how I used to be.

Meanwhile there are freshly turned pages.

Over a year ago I began writing poetry again; nothing like stirred emotions to awaken the muse! After a while, I realised it might amount to being a little more than poorly-crafted angst, easing my soul, and started for the first time in my life, to let other people see. I took advice: I wanted to be good at what I was doing, and I had something to say. Through many sessions with Kim Lasky over many months, I learned how to craft poetry out of inspiration, and began telling the stories of perspectives of transgender journeys. As the pile of poetry grew I felt bolder and started to imagine titles of a collection. It was about perspectives, voices, journeys. But in the end my title is Realisations. All along, I was making myself more real, as well as realising things that I’d been blind to, or ignorant of, for over 40 years.

I have written a lot that has nothing to do with this collection, and was immensely gratified in October 2011, to win – at my first appearance, at my first public reading of anything – a poetry slam. My only regret was that I stood up as a man, whilst naming the poem as a woman.

RealisationsToday I turned the last page on the collection, completed my final edits and layout, and sent my final copy and cover design off to print. In a couple of weeks, I shall be in print. It isn’t the end. I’ve already imagined what the title of the sequel might be, and what direction it might take. But the point is, I knew that the collection was complete, and there was nothing more of that part of the journey I wanted to say. As such, the book will be a nice reflection, but maybe of most inspiration or reassurance to those who are following after, still finding their first steps on the ladder of self-recognition and dealing with family, friends, society at large.

And for all the investment, I have moved on. Some of the events and memories feel already old, though no less real. I have closed the book just as readers open it. I hope it will be useful. Most of all, I hope that readers will read the poems several times over, and realise that what I have really done is write some quite deep and concentrated poetry, with a language to intrigue and savour, whatever the subject.

If poetry is not your thing (and it really is not for many people) this will pass you by. For me it’s a small achievement as a writer, and a memoir of a time I shall never have to go through again. What lies ahead may be more difficult still. I shall be writing. If poetry is your thing, I really would like you to buy this beautiful little thing, and understand the heart behind it. If you do, I hope to be able to make a donation from the proceeds to the Clare Project that has sustained me during my first year of real-I-sation.


  • Posted on March 21, 2012 at 9:23 am

I play trumpet in several bands, and one of them has been thinking about its logo – its brand identity – for quite some time. As a contemporary wind band, the old logo of an ancient harp and classical laurels aren’t exactly what we are about, and in the last couple of years we really have become probably the best of our kind in the region, so we should look the part. Quite what it is that makes us unable to design, or have designed for us, a logo, I’m not sure. Maybe there is a fear that someone might ‘win’ and someone else might feel rejected – or just that not everyone will like what we end up with and someone will be blamed. I designed and run the website, and I do the publicity artwork, so I’m frustrated that I can’t update it with an image that portrays us better. I feel I’m bursting at the seams for want of a resolution.

Yes, that is all true, but it is also an analogy. Now a little story.

Yesterday [my friend a trombone player] met a woman in a doctor’s waiting room. He had never met her before, but she recognised him, and when she came out, they sat and had a chat for five minutes until he went in. Of course, he had recognised her name when called, but it was a name that will not be called again at that practice. Strangely, it was the least embarrassing meeting she had ever had in a doctor’s waiting room.

Today, that same woman came to another practice, to rehearse for the next concert with her friend on the trombone, and her friends on trumpet, flute and clarinet. But before doing so, she erased her identity, kicked off her heels and dressed as a man. Everyone recognised her.

But she is weary of waiting rooms. Tired of the rebranding that never seems to arrive. Sad that she is only recognised when rubbed out.

I am that woman. And the observant will have noticed that it is my new name and my new email on all my websites. They will have noticed that I won a poetry prize with the wrong name. If they Googled that name they would have found me for poetry, for book reviews, for being a publisher, and for this blog. The observant will have noticed pierced ears, painted nails, plucked eyebrows. And readers of a previous blog post will know the pain that the erasures cause.

Last night, with another band, I had a lovely exchange with a bassoon player, in which we described our ‘differences’ which are entirely normal to us. I guess admitting to being transgender does open some doors, even if it closes others. I could have given her such a big hug! But her reply was two-fold: first, why did I dress as a man if this is how I am? The second was that I had great courage. The first made sense, hence this story. The second I always reject. This is not courage, this is just being authentic. If we can’t be true to ourselves, we are not living the one life we have been given, as it should be lived: as only we can. This is not bravery any more, this is just giving in.

I identify as transgender, and I have been living as a woman increasingly for over a year, dealing with a lifetime’s discomforts and 40 years of not being able to understand why, or what I could do about it. I am at peace with myself, while I know the profound consequences it is having on my nearest and dearest. But it is all the friends who have been so supportive and reassuring, that have given me a sense of trust and a freedom to present my true self in hope of acceptance.

This is not Tootsie or Mrs Doubtfire. If you want a name to look up, it’s gender dysphoria: it’s a question of gender identity, not of sexual orientation. It is not a psychological disorder and it is not a product of nurture. Something in how I was born means that for all the body I have, my sense of who I am does not quite match. We are all happy to talk of women with strong masculine identities, how they wear the trousers, or succeed in a man’s world. And we are all happy to talk of men who clearly have a strong feminine side. What we never think about is what percent of opposite-genderedness we are comfortable with? Ten per cent? What about 50 per cent? What about a man with a 75 per cent feminine side? What about the 90 per centers, who for all their physiology, cry out that this is not what they are on the inside, in their soul?

As I begin to present at band practices as a woman, I expect to be spoken of as ‘she’ and ‘her’. But the last thing I want is to be a distraction: I am only there to play music after all! I understand that I shall be a curiosity for a while, but one thing is incredibly important to me: if anyone has a question, I want them to talk to me, not to discuss me as some kind of oddity or make me a subject of speculation. They can ask me anything that I can ask them in return. Deal? I hope so, because if the estimated 1 in 4,000 of us is touched by similar gender identity issues, I am actually a lot more normal than any of them might suppose. In fact I may well not be the only transgender person they know: it’s just that I choose to be visible.

Tonight the band has an AGM. That usually means a poor turnout! But tonight I shall read this out, and those who aren’t there can come here instead and read it. I don’t think we shall resolve the band identity tonight, but I do hope that I can now stop erasing my own.

And finally, a big thank you to all those who already know, and who have been so supportive and encouraging. It means a great deal to me.

Standing on the edge of time (coming out, again)

  • Posted on March 18, 2012 at 10:04 am

Musicians are quite promiscuous. No, not like that: I mean that once you find a band or orchestra to play in, you find more than one, and most of us play in several. In my region I would be surprised to be invited to deputise (fill in for a shortage on a section) anywhere without meeting regular players that I’ve played with elsewhere. It’s actually rather nice never to be a stranger. But it does make this a very widely connected and disparate social circle, compared with other friend groups I have that are much more compact.

This connection can make life potentially very confusing if you’re contemplating coming out as transgender, and you know that it will take some time before everyone appreciates what it means, how to talk about it, and the curiosity and gossip die down. Meantime it can be very uncomfortable. Do you come out one band at a time? Or all at once and try to catch the debris as best you can? What if you’ve told one group but not another, with all that promiscuous cross-mixing? Is one band now expecting you to turn up as a woman, while another cannot, yet has players who know? Can you be one thing one week and another the next?

The edge of time

It is at points of transition like this where discomfort can be more acute. I have had wonderful support from a number of people – in fact everyone I’ve told and spoken to individually. But, I do have this sense that social circles like bands are rather more strictly gendered than others. Maybe my idea of brass bands in particular is rooted in my Yorkshire beginnings, where female players play up to the men and everyone wears the same braided jacket, and everyone drinks beer. Maybe I just know that it’s the power of male presence in what used to be smoky night club venues and late dance bands. Maybe I just have a feeling that the men are real men and the girls enter their world.

Nowhere else has the issue of changing rooms (‘men are on the left, girls on the right, and er, well, if you’re neither of those …’ *haw-haw*!) and gender jokes felt so painful. Maybe it’s just nights out, where girls like to be spotted and flirted with, and the blokes away from home for a night love doing it. Partners get fed up coming out to hear the same old music, if they come at all, and the cameraderie of music can seem like an opportunity …

So who and what you are as a musician matters quite a lot. You are afraid of becoming the oft-repeated joke, carried away across that immense interconnected network of musicians everywhere. There’s no messing about here – if you’re coming out, you have to be committed.

And that is the edge of time for me. The bloke who used to play the trumpet isn’t there anymore. But is she a real woman? Or just the odd one out? Leaving an old life behind can mean a new one just isn’t as easy to establish as you’d like. Of all places I have come out as transgender, this is the steepest precipice, the biggest audience, the greatest risk. Will I ever be welcome in the women’s changing room? Will gendered jokes be more circumspect? Or will I be neither one of the girls nor one of the blokes, just nothing, in the middle – the laugh that echoes in the corridor between closed changing room doors?

Standing on the edge

By the time you read this I may be well over the edge, but as I write, it is one of the most significant phases in realising my transgenderedness. It has been a preservative for my family of the old normality. (At least he’s still a man when he goes to band!) Not so long ago I was sitting in rehearsal, counting bars, trumpet on my knee, thinking how strange my own clothes seemed. Very much the wrong trousers. For ages I have fallen to pieces inside before concerts, because I had to wear the DJ and bowtie while all the women made themselves lovely in long black skirts or concert dresses, and looked beautiful. And last night I felt very close to the edge, as gender shouted itself at me for an hour leading up to being on stage.

So once again I am contemplating how best to present myself authentically, without becoming a distraction, just so I can play music as best I can among fellow musicians who respect me. I have no idea who will, and who will (or can) not. It’s an edge, and I might fall off. And when I step off this time, something will go forever: a relief to me, but an awkward enigma for many.

I worry about hot summer venues and the things I must wear to stop being mistaken for a man. I worry about Royal Marines sitting either side of me and not knowing what to say to me. I worry about gendered evenings when I simply don’t fit ‘the arrangements’.


I have nowhere else to go, and no-one else to be but myself, and this time again, I have no real choice at all. A couple of days ago, talking together with a counselor, my wife struggling with pronouns, I realised that the ‘he’ we were talking about used to be me.

Funny thing is, it doesn’t make my trumpet playing any better or worse …