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A love less ordinary: Laura Newman

  • Posted on November 24, 2012 at 10:58 pm

This weekA Love Less Ordinary; Laura Newman I turned up a scanned article someone helpfully sent me ages ago. It was about Helen Boyd and Betty in the early days. Great! There was Betty doing Helen’s make-up, and then Betty resting her head lovingly on Helen’s shoulder. This was a love less ordinary, surely?

I was desperate, when I began to realise that my big unknown was gender dysphoria, to read, to buy books, to share the coming-to-understand. Desperate to show it wasn’t just me, in the hope that understanding would preserve the love in my partnership. I bought, as so many, My Husband Betty by Helen Boyd. We read it. It’s a great book.

The article has a pull-quote that says if Betty were ever to head for physical transition, their marriage would be over.

A trans friend asked if I had read the second book, She’s not the Man I Married. I wasn’t sure about doing that. It is in some ways the book of doubts. It’s the story of the uncertainty and impending change, it’s about love, identity and sexuality. One chapter is titled ‘Genitals are the least of it’. Phew! Could that be true? But it is about the period during which Betty had yet to commit to surgical reassignment (or correction). And the book ends still with all the fuzziness of not really knowing all that marriage and a trans partner implies, and whether Helen would still be the same Helen if Betty were ‘really’ to be just Betty. It was not a reassuring book to share, honest as it was.

Here was Helen full of doubts but full of love, accepting that her charming man she fell in love with was just an illusion.

My friend then said: ‘You know Betty has transitioned now?’ And if I remember rightly, I later read that Helen’s subsequent sentiment that has kept them together and campaigning, is that she just wanted still to be waking up with the person she has always loved most. But that isn’t in the book.

How many times did I say, usually in tears and fear: ‘You can walk away from this. I can’t!’? Hoping that the answer would be ‘I could never do that!’

There isn’t a third book, and we worked our way through personal stories, case studies of diverse lives, academic research. In fact most of the serious stuff you could get. It is all shot through with love, in the end, being the least of it, and why: that staying with a trans person erodes your own personality, identity, sexual certainty. That love is not – cannot be – enough.

There was nothing to say: ‘Hold on, this can work out. If this person [my trans partner] can go through so much, face such change, so much fear and pain, and retain self-identity, dignity and sense of self, stronger than ever – then maybe I can too.’

The new book: A Love Les Ordinary

Laura Newman’s book A Love Les Ordinary: sharing life, laughter and handbags with my transgender partner heads straight for this corner. It isn’t just the challenge of having – being known to have – a trans partner, it is that you can lose yourself in all the pressures and expectations of life anyway, and it is often the trans partner who shows the greatest honesty, strength and courage to be true to self. What if we were all able to do that? What if the issues aren’t about the trans partner, but about knowing that you are free to live life the way you should be, not just playing roles and meeting expectations? What makes a wonderful relationship? The sex you always thought correct? The ‘orientation’ you feel most fitting or comfortable with? No. It is one in which you know and love yourself with such honesty that you can be all you are with another who can do the same, regardless. Because then there is no compromise, no sell-out, no resentment that the other is preventing you being all you are. It doesn’t mean no give and take, it just means you both know it’s there and have agreed it freely. And it doesn’t mean no change, but that you can accept it together.

Maybe this harks back to something I wrote a long while back about other people not actually changing you, about honesty, and about how loving a person who never really was the ‘opposite’ but now shows it, doesn’t suddenly make you gay or lesbian.

The core of this understanding of love is that you cannot love another unless you love yourself, but that when you do, love matters more than any expectations.

You may have been told that already, through: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ (which is only a minimum requirement – you can end up hating yourself and therefore your neighbour!), or through the Buddhist tenet of lovingkindness needing you to love yourself first. But Laura demonstrates how this works out in a good relationship, how it makes a great relationship, and why being fully, honestly yourself is therefore a prerequisite.

There is surprise when I explain to others that, given the choice to have my lover and my family and my home back, with 40 more healthy years of life ahead, in exchange for living as a man – or to be the woman I am on medications that could endanger my life, and alone – that the latter is the only thing I could ever do. I can only love from who I am, loving myself as I am.

Laura’s book is not for trans people. It is mainly for women facing unconventional relationships, and the quandry of loving someone others would not respect you for. What does it do to you, and why does it do anything to you at all? Laura does address sexuality, but again, if you loosen your understanding of gender, perhaps you can just as easily adjust your understanding of what it means to love someone who looks more like you.

This book is not about accepting trans people or any special dispensation, it is about how two people can make a wonderful loving partnership through knowing themselves equally, so that they can give love unconditionally. There are amazing possibilities here, for any love relationship, and Laura’s earlier experience with an insecure transvestite left a significant foundation for starting a very different relationship. Helen Boyd also knew she was dating a cross-dresser from the start. I shall shortly review Emma Canton’s If You Really Loved Me properly too, so all three books of successful survival were neither taken by surprise after a long and happy marriage, nor unrelentingly heterosexual.

A Love Les Ordinary is a really valuable addition to the reading list for partners who have to come to terms with what it means to love someone who is transgendered. It does not go so far as to address the implications of a partner who is transsexual, but even there it is a good start. And it should be thrust into the hands of anyone who says they cannot understand how you could actually love, let alone be intimate with, someone transgendered.

I am still waiting for the book that says how a spouse can unconditionally love a partner who comes to terms with their gender rather late on, without losing their own sense of self. It is probably something to do with the realisation that they have happily loved a person not knowing that so much of what they appreciated came from something they would never have chosen. But I do know of a small number of marriages that have continued on the basis of ‘they are still the same person (not “man”) I married’.

When it is written, I hope still to be around to review it, because it would be such useful reading. Meanwhile, I am just longing for a love less ordinary.

Transgender relativity

  • Posted on November 18, 2012 at 8:35 am

Now, let me guess; what is this blog going to be about? Ah! That when you’re transitioning, you can’t travel faster than the speed of light. Sadly true, but no!

OK… I know! Matter and energy can be equated: when something really matters to you, you have boundless energy to achieve it? Again, there’s truth in that, but no.

Alright; it’s just a neat way of speaking about families as quanta? That bonds only have statistical probabilities? Or the fact that you can’t be two things at once – but really you can? Or that the gravity of transitioning is a function of the space you fill and the time it takes?

No. It’s going to be about relating. It’s about people together, how they interact, and some of the reasons for that. I’m not being academic about it, just observing. Just sayin’…

We spend a lot of time talking about relating as families, as friends, as more than friends, as partners.

As far as family are concerned, I have just become a daughter. I love it. My mum may never really come to grips with it, because it may just be too late, too many years of being one thing. A daughter? It’s just relative. I have become a sister too. Again, it has changed the way I feel I relate. I like it; it works. I will always have fathered children, and I have covered this before. It is the most difficult, because I will never be a mother. If possible, I just want to be Andie, who still is a parent, out of the zone of dependency, admiring my children, and simply wanting recognition and respect, and a desire to understand how I was born the way I was. Maybe one day. My family was always relatively small. Now it is relatively smaller.

Family relationships are built to a large extent on roles. Those roles change anyway through phases of life, but this change has not in fact changed roles.

To some friends I have become an honorary sister, which I find lovely, wholly accept and am finding a new richness in. I can go out with another woman, and there really is nothing in it, except the privilege of sisterhood. We can even talk about relationships, or cry, or laugh. Or all three at once. To other friends we just carry on as before, with pronoun changes, maybe a change in what jokes may be acceptably presented to me, but relatively unchanged.

I don’t have a partner, so I can’t say much here. But I know, having expanded into my natural space, how I relate will be different – if it ever happens again.

Something’s cooking

One book I bought when moving into my own place was Delia Smith’s One is Fun. (For those too young or not habitually in the kitchen: recipes for the single person.) Does being single make cooking fun? I actually enjoy cooking now I get to do it. (OK, have to do it.) In fact I like it so much I think I may have discovered pan-sexuality.

And yes, I missed one out from my list: ‘more than friends’.

Many trans* people, on losing the rigidity or binary nature of gender, or at least of the binding of physiology and mind/soul, come to realise the paradoxes of sexuality. If gender is fluid, or non-binary, or detached from the genitals, so may sexuality. It does not mean you don’t know what you are, but you might not know straight away, and you might yet be surprised. For a number of trans* people, sexual intimacy is simply what can ensue with someone you really love. So this woman has a penis? And this man used to have breasts? Is it still intuitively wrong because you are not gay, or not lesbian? It isn’t wrong any more – or rather, it isn’t inappropriate any more, because you let go the matrix and go with your feelings. Love is expressed with what you have got. Hence a steer towards pansexuality. ‘What sex are you really?’ loses its basis in what you see. Love, trust and respect take over from ticking the standard boxes.

The nature of attraction can change for all sorts of reasons: you love a woman more than you used to a man, or vice versa, and find heterosexuality wasn’t as anchored as you thought. You want to express love rather than have the ‘right kind’ of sex. But is doesn’t always change, and there is no scale of predictability. And I do recognise that hormones play a role, either shutting them off or taking them in. But again, not predictably.

It’s still all relative.

And the sense of what you are is still influenced by what people think or say you are. I still have to fully come to terms with the difference between how I feel and what others see. I may get up in the morning and go to work without an ounce of doubt that I am a woman. Once there, a new employee may take one look at me and ask someone else why that woman over there looks a bit different. Isn’t there something about her? Yes. She used to be a man. Frankly, that is what most people will say. Am I a woman? Or just a woman who used to be a man? Is it all just relative? To me, no.

Paradoxes of relativity – and surprise

Trans* relativity can be an enduring discomfort, which is part of why some realise they can never quite be what they want to be, despite all available treatments and surgery. We are who we are, and we are what we are, and some people will never treat those two equally. They may want one, but not the other. For so many, this is the one point at which the marriage vows become very relative too. All that I, am I give? All that I have, I share? Except you didn’t mention the just cause or impediment, and had I known, I would have given, shared, and promised nothing. You broke the contract by being yourself. But what are you? A ‘real’ man? A ‘real’ woman? Or just a woman who used to be a man? Doesn’t it scare you just a little bit when you read your marriage vows, however they were phrased? Aren’t they just impossibly unconditional? What hope of ever exchanging such grand promises to anyone ever again?

If I could change my skeleton for a female one, of course I would. Instead I choose clothes that make the most of a bad job. And as far as I can, I don’t even think about what I ‘used to be’, because that was just the outside. My heart and soul are the same. What I can give is the same. The way I love is the same. Sex? As always, unchanged, I will be loving and generous with what I have, even though what I have will also change. So who wants my love, and does it matter how relative my ‘woman’ is?

As an observer of my transitioning life, I am always as surprised as anyone. The acceptance I have found, from women especially, has at times overwhelmed me. I am one too; welcome to the sorority. Male acceptance? Sometimes cool. But for me, the worst part is the men who having asked, treat me as the woman who used to be a man. Used to be a man, will understand the humour, the suggestion, the sex/gender edginess, the mindset. Sorry guys; it never was my mindset, so don’t put that one on me now either.

And my biggest surprise? That the person who has made me feel most authentic as a woman – is a man.

It’s all a matter of relativity.


  • Posted on November 10, 2012 at 8:26 am

How much can you know how another person is feeling? ‘I’ve been there’ is reassuring, if you believe the person really has, or has been close enough. Sometimes, in a deep, spiritual way, you know you are very close to being understood or to understanding, but as I’ve written elsewhere here, sometimes the best you can do is sit close enough to another person and allow yourself to resonate, and see how it feels.

Resonance is a funny thing. It is reported that when Nicholas Tesla discovered the power of resonance he almost brought a whole building down with a tiny device. Too much resonance can be destructive: the wine glass and the opera singer; or it can be rather fun: singing in the bath, or finding that note in a tunnel. It can be peculiar too: I remember talking to a colleague in a stair well, and his voice simply hit the resonant frequency of the space and boomed, so we had to move to speak normally.

That’s why I have suggested that no-one can understand gender dysphoria who doesn’t have it. But I think more importantly, others don’t know how to understand their own reactions. We are confusing, and we undermine many things others have held to be true. Sit next to us too long, and our natural tone might shake your self-understanding to bits. So what does it take to stick around long enough to know you won’t lose your own integrity? What does it take, to see the person, with the dysphoria, know their pain, and know your love for them still reaches through all that, and find them unthreatening to self? What does it take, to know that love is attached to something very different than the outer layers, and that staying vulnerable to them will allow them to love you without destroying your integrity, self-belief and credibility?

All the time, partnerships and marriages are falling apart, with anger, accusations, a lot of fear, distrust, as a result of gender dysphoria. In the fallout it is the ‘normal’ people who return to ‘normal’ relationships, shake off the weird episode, leave it behind and find what they think of as abiding love. Those who transition so often simply lose. They learn to live without partnership, without intimacy, without that one most trusted, most vulnerable person to love, without the daily reassurance and comfort, and grow strong, singular. It isn’t about loneliness, and it isn’t about becoming hardened. It’s about knowing that you may never again be desired, wanted, reached for, given to, taken. You stand on your own two feet, and trust yourself, protecting your vulnerabilities and try not to remember too vividly what it was to be loved completely. You rationalise that love was not what you thought it was, that it was attached to the wrong part; rope glued onto the paintwork rather than tied securely.

Who understands what it feels like to find the most precious, authentic expression of the best of yourself, the source of all the most profound feelings, hope and love you have ever had and shared, and be excluded because of it? To know that another would rather have no loving, no intimacy, no partnership or companionship, no shared memories – than ever have that with you again, if you are going to be like this.

This is not a recriminatory blog, though it is how things are. No, it is because – having read all the books of how trans* people have pulled through, leaving the wreckage of marriages and partnerships behind, all the stories of how impossible it is to hang onto love when your bud opens and the flower is wrong – it has felt that it is simply a tough fact that being trans* means losing those you love most. People don’t want to be changed by us – something I wrote on a long way back now. If I love you, you will make me gay/lesbian/bi (whatever I most fear imagining). Or: If I accept you, I shall be seen to be too liberal/tolerant of this … behaviour.

And then, too late, two books turn up in quick succession. I promise reviews of both, because I’d like you to read them.

The first to be published is Emma Canton’s If you Really Loved me. The second is Laura Newman’s A Love Less Ordinary: Sharing Life, Laughter and Handbags with My Transgender Partner.

Each is a deep personal exploration of that primary issue: what is the trans* partner doing to me by saying they must change? Yes; transition in a partnership is about two people transitioning. What will it make me, and what right do they have to expect me to be different? In sum, each is an exploration of what it really means to love another person, how that love is attached, what it is attached to, and whether it is, in the end, that important to you.

A certain knowledge of body

  • Posted on November 4, 2012 at 9:22 am

What a week of extremes. From performance poetry and the realisation that I have credibility as a woman and as a writer, to sitting writing a really simple but difficult letter to my mother. Until this week, her not-quite-famous daughter was just a son who had gone quiet of late. We have never been especially close, and I have always felt awkward with her. Ever since I was as small as I can remember, there were always things I knew just shouldn’t be said or asked. Even if something was self-evidently true, or you needed to know about something unmentionable, a single disapproving look, a pause in conversation, a silence – would remind me to shut up.

Somehow that meant not just questions about sex, but also about emotions, about love, about listening. It sounds harsh, even unkind, but it wasn’t. We bumped along, pretending we weren’t strapped for cash, socially detached, never entertaining friends and neighbours, being a model family and silent about the skeletons in the cupboards. And we had our share. We have a track record on those members of the family about which we do not speak.

It feels related; a story I kept to myself for well over forty years has been told only now. I was 12, maybe 13, in a single-sex grammar school. It was the age when kids start to have crushes, and everyone else seemed to mix with friends that included girls, so it was becoming a regular thing to inscribe personal belongings with ‘I love (Gillian)’ (replace as appropriate). Of course, I didn’t. As a family we did not have a social life, and I certainly wasn’t guided to even ‘suitable’ social venues for kids. Maybe it was the money, or the lack of transport. Maybe it was because we had to be different in order to avoid being identified a less well off – or that people as less well off as we were just weren’t as nice. Anyhow, not to be left out, I inscribed my red geometry set case very neatly (and I normally looked after my things so impeccably well) with ‘I love me’. Nothing could have been so shameful. So with the best match of red electrical insulating tape she could find, my mum covered over my pride and arrogance, even narcissism, and made me proper and respectable again.

How do you feel good about yourself, celebrate any achievement when you are told it is wrong to love yourself? If I didn’t feel like a boy, if I felt left out of my sister’s progress into puberty and adolescence, if I felt pushed into a grey hole where I had to learn to be a proper man, even when certain things were already screaming at me because I didn’t want to be like that, then the last thing in the world was to even think about it, let alone love myself enough to have the inner, honest conversation. I had secrets and hidden things from the age of 14, and I hated myself for it, guilty and angry that I should feel like that, let alone do anything about it. For every success I refused recognition. To think you were good, even excellent, was arrogance and pride. I wasn’t good enough; I never could be. So I was consistently top of the class? I was a concert soloist on two instruments? I went to university, gained a first class honours in an arts degree, with science A-levels behind me, and did a masters? When everyone else was jumping up and down, hugging, calling parents excitedly, celebrating, going out on the town, I phoned home and said simply: ‘Yes, I got the first.’ And that was that.

My sister and I agreed that she should be the bearer of the news in person. There was no softer or easier way of doing it. I knew that I could not risk there ever being a call to her bedside, where I would appear for the very first time as a daughter – and no, we don’t see each other very much at all. So my sister, who has been amazing in coming to terms with me as a woman, made the difficult decision to travel up and tell our mum everything. Well I couldn’t just phone, could I?

‘Hi Mum; it’s me’

‘Oh. Hello. Sorry; your voice sounds funny.’

‘I’m just ringing to let you know I’ve moved into a flat on my own. We’ve separated.’

‘Oh no! That’s terrible. What’s happened, I thought you were so happy?’

‘Mum. I’m a woman. I’m your daughter.’

Whereupon the silence to end all silences. No; that wasn’t a good way of saying it.

So I sat writing a letter to try and unravel a lifetime of undescribed, hidden, mis-understood, gender dysphoria. She knows now, and doesn’t want to see me, though perhaps I could phone. Thank goodness your father never had to know. What would the neighbours think? Of course I can’t tell anyone; this must never get out. So what do I say?

Somewhere behind my knowledge of body, there is a body of knowledge she will never know. She won’t remember it more strongly than what she knew about sex and gender when we could never speak of it before. Clinical or scientific explanations won’t do. It’s just my word, my strangeness, my deviance. She probably thinks I’m some weird kind of transvestite, doing kinky things, rather than a very ordinary woman with a very plain life. And there it may lie. I hope not. A few nights ago I was thinking: I could have been her daughter, and our relationship would have been completely different as a result.

How can I tell her: I really do love myself?


PS. I did phone, and actually it is alright. I am surprised. Very surprised really. She will get used to it in time, and she will accept me as I am, though I expect imagining me as a daughter will take a little longer.