Happy new year (if I'd been thinking I'd have put this in the last column).
So last month I introduced you to transgenderism and justified why a transgendered columnist belongs in a magazine for queer and questioning youth. This month I'm going to get a bit more personal and talk about my own experience of being transgendered. Obviously as I'm writing from my own experience I can only really talk about a specific kind of transgender -- the point of view of a male to female transsexual (and this specific one at that) - but it will share many details with female to male transsexuals and other gender transgressing people.
I'm going to skim over the gory details of my childhood (if you're interested you can read all about them at very great length in the 'Growing Up Transsexual' section of http://www.zowie256.freeserve.co.uk my website) suffice to say when I was primary school age (we're talking five to ten years old here) I was very uncomfortable about the way I looked, I would stare at my face in the mirror at length without being able to see anything good in what I saw. I believed that I was different, ugly and a freak and that everyone else could see that, and as I result I wasn't as self confident as I might have been. I also recall the only way I could get over these feelings was by comparing myself directly with a single, popular, male member of my class. When I looked at it that way I couldn't rationally see any difference between us. I happily had a number of close female friends at primary school and we just generally did our own thing without gender being much of an issue at all. Secondary school was a shock to the system. I moved there when I was 12 years old. I was rejected and teased for being feminine by all the girls I tried to make friends with. Eventually I was forced to try to make friends with boys, something which didn't come naturally to me, and gradually I decided that in order to grow up and become a normal man I had to learn to act like a boy. I assumed that everyone else had to do this as well (except the girls who didn't have to do anything except be themselves) and that all the other boys were just much better at it than be. Gradually I learned to completely control how I acted, spoke and thought in order to conform to what I believed I had to do to be a boy. Eventually I could only think my own thoughts by pre-fixing them with "If I was a girl I'd think...". My entire life felt like an act in that I was literally first thinking through every thing I did, including my own conscious thoughts, body language, likes and opinions.
By the time I was 15 I understandably couldn't cope with this any more, especially when combined with the feelings I began to have for my best friend which I could not allow myself to have or rationalise at all from the perspective of my constructed mind. I couldn't act anymore so I just shut myself off from everyone, broke up with all my friends and did my very best to be seen as nothing, insignificant and thoroughly ignorable. I still believed I had to act like a boy, I just didn't have the strength to pretend anymore. I wasn't allowing myself to express myself, I just did my school work, avoided my new friends and then went home to bed. Obviously this wasn't particularly happy either, something was going to break eventually, but unfortunately I wasn't yet ready to deal the full depth of my situation. Instead I grabbed onto a small aspect of what I was suppressing, I was attracted to boys in my classes, and I allowed myself to privately identify as gay. So by the time I was 17 I had a reason to blame for all my feelings of frustration and gender dysphoria. Thinking of myself as gay and completely in the closet allowed me to actually recognise some of my feelings and think about how I acted artificially all the time instead of doing what came naturally. I finally stopped acting and started being myself. I stopped thinking about how far apart my legs should go when I sat down and how I shouldn't gesticulate with my arms any higher than my hips and just let my natural body language run free. It was very liberating to actually behave as myself and even in transition to presenting as female I haven't needed to change any of my natural behaviour.
So I was able to express myself and to some limited degree think freely but I was still never really happy. I longed to have female friends and relationships with others where we expressed our emotions, rather than my 'friends' who just put each other down to make themselves look big. I longed to wear clothes I liked (not necessarily female clothes just nice clothes I could feel comfortable in) and grow my hair long (an ambition since childhood which I'd always been too embarrassed, ashamed or scared to fulfil). I longed for many things which a normal gay man would not generally want (like a handbag, long nails and to wear nail varnish) but still blamed all these feelings on being gay without telling anyone. Then I got onto the Internet and reached out to others who were gay and in the closet. I read newsgroups, I read Oasis and I talked a lot on IRC on both specifically queer youth and other more general channels. I felt much better from reading these forums but very soon found myself drawn towards transgender issues. I read all the articles on transgender in the Queer Resources Directory (mostly about trans-people being beaten , murdered or thrown out of school) and I subscribed to the newsgroup soc.support.transgendered which put me back years by being absolutely terrifying and full of very political people who seemed to be transsexual and nothing else and spent all their time arguing about how their version of transgenderism was better than everyone else's. No one on there seemed like me. In fact I felt like I'd rather do anything than be like that, so I went back to places like Oasis satisfied that these were the people most like me.
After another year or so while I was 18 and still in school someone came out as transsexual on one of my regular chat channels. She was completely accepted by the regulars of the channel and what's more she was young -- only a year older than I was, not a really scary political person like on the newsgroup I'd read and especially she had her own interests and was clearly being herself not some kind of ultra feminine stereotype. After this I was aware that normal young people like me could just happen to be transsexual and the walls of denial and repression in my mind were shaken. I searched the Internet again and found the http://transsexual.org/" website written by a 16 year post-op male to female transsexual who transitioned at age 20. I read the entire (large) site from start to finish, including essay style exercises designed to make a gender questioning person work out if they were transsexual. I related to a lot of what she said and I just couldn't get the thinking exercises and some of the letters she received out of my mind. So I began to identify as in someway transgendered as well as gay. I would say my gender was androgynous, closer to female than male. I really meant I felt totally female but was terrified of the implication that I was female in mind and male in body because that meant I was transsexual and I was still not ready to deal with something that big. I began to reach out for help from my transsexual IRC friend but, not wanting to outright privately ask for help (that would be admitting I had a problem), I instead all but stalked her turning up on her regular channel whenever she joined and leaving straight after she did. I'd strike up a conversation about gender transgression or transgender feelings and wait for her to get interested and join in. I still have logs from these conversations and looking at them now shows a very repressed transsexual not doing a very good job of hiding it. I say things like "I need to get on hormones but I can't even bring myself to shave my legs" and "I want everyone to see me as female but I don't want to have to change anything about myself". A very eye-opening comment from that time is "I'm not brave or strong enough to be transsexual". I was obviously again reaching a very low point and the truth was almost breaking through but at the last minute I got myself a boyfriend (met through the internet) and again focused on my sexuality and the relationship to keep my mind off my gender feelings until university where I would finally be completely openly gay.
So I finally got to university and did my very best to be myself including openly telling everyone I knew I was gay and joining the university's LGB society (stands for Lesbian Gay and Bisexual). I went out and socialised, had loads of friends and a generally great life for a young gay man. Of course this is where the cracks began to show because I wasn't a gay man or any other kind of man and as time went by I realised I still had all the same feelings but with no closet sexuality to blame them on. Now add to that the fact that I had a busy social life as well (something which I'd clearly never done before, I hadn't even had people I'd consider friends outside of school) which just brought out all of the other aspects of my gender repression. I felt totally ugly and unlovable and was only able to feel good about myself through other people's attraction to me, because of this I had at least one relationship which I very soon regretted. I began to feel increasingly depressed and by the second term I no longer wanted to go out and drink alcohol with my myriad of friends. I still went out but I stayed sober and sat there silently thinking about everything that was wrong with the situation. I was extremely aware that I was being treated as a role and not a person. Whenever I was spoken to I'd think about who they thought they were talking to, me as an individual or 'man in a pub'. I felt like no one really knew me. That no matter what I did, even if I was completely being myself in behaviour, I was only at best treated as a 'camp gay man', generally made a joke of and still not seen as anything even resembling me.
All my feelings from my Internet exploration of my gender problems came back. I again stayed up late at night feeling anguished, telling friends I had to change something major, I had to do something to be myself but again didn't feel strong enough to actually change anything. I knew I was transsexual, I just had to struggle to not think about it. I began to feel like I'd had acid thrown in my face when shop assistants called me 'sir', all my repressed and denied feelings came to the fore. I lost hours of my life staring into the mirror trying to see something, anything of me in my face. I got to the point when I just couldn't function in life anymore. I began to miss coursework deadlines and lectures and began showing many of the symptoms of depression. By the third term I had reached such a low point that I had to act or I'd lose my mind completely. I really couldn't cope with the struggle and I gradually came closer and closer to accepting my transsexuality even though the implications of that were some of the most terrifying prospects I could imagine. I had to seek help and so I again turned to the Internet.
Online I found supportive mailing lists for young transsexuals like myself. I chose a female name that felt like my own and began to use it. After a short while reading the posts of others further along the journey of transition than I was (I'd reached self-acceptance) I decided I needed to see a psychiatrist and get on female hormones. I made an appointment with the top specialist in gender matters in this country and then suffered through three of the most uncomfortable weeks of my life before I got to see him. During this time I came out to many of my friends from the LGB society who were all supportive. I went to London with a friend to see the psychiatrist and told him my life story focusing on my gender dysphoria and, agreeing with my self-diagnosis, I was prescribed female hormones which I've now been on since June 1999. Starting hormones was an amazing spiritual-like experience. As if a tormenting storm I didn't even realise was there was lifted from my mind allowing me to be calm and happy with myself for the first time in my life.
Right now I'm on the path to legal transition where I'll change my name and all the ID I am allowed to. I am also gradually becoming more and more physically feminine until eventually I will pass as female all the time. I have never been so happy in my life but at the same time I am still very emotionally fragile and seemingly irrational about all sorts of things. Transition is a very painful and emotional time. If I'm put into a situation I can't cope with I have what we informally call a 'gender crash', for a reason related to gender I suffer a miniature breakdown and for a short while want to do no more than cry and hide from the world. These come almost entirely from situations where I believe I'm being perceived as male or I'm being perceived as 'the transsexual one' and not actually included with 'real' females. I am especially likely to crash if I feel I have gone along in any way with people's misconceptions. If someone assumed I like stereotypically male things and I just go along with them or even just don't contradict them I will feel emotionally crushed when the situation is over. If someone lists 'the girls' and I'm not in it I'll usually just act annoyed when really I'll be obsessing and crying over the incident for a week. As a rule I can't deal with any situation where I have to struggle to be treated as me. In fact I mostly need to feel that there's going to be no conflict and everyone will be completely supportive of me. Of course this should mean I should just stay inside and hide in my bedroom but I don't. I know I'm irrational about this so I go to societies and social events anyway and get what I can out of them. I know things will all work out when I'm passing full time, until then I'd rather try to make the best out of life and have it hurt occasionally rather than hide in a corner and not feel anything.
With all this gender crashing and emotional pain you might wonder how or why anyone manages to get through transition or wants to start on that path in the first place. Well it's a do or might-as-well-die situation. Now I've been on hormones for nearly eight months I can say these positive things about my life I never could before; I'm being myself and not actively living a very miserable lie. If I do gender crash it's for a good reason -- I'm struggling to be real not just being just too weak and scared to do anything except hide. My friends, family and everyone else actually know who I am -- all relationships must be based on honesty, without that it's nothing. I can look at myself in the mirror and actually see something I like somewhere in my face and my body. Hormones make me feel like a person not a wretched thing. I can actually have a loving relationship with someone with out feeling guilty or knowing they don't really love me. And less importantly but still fantastically nice; I have (albeit small) breasts that feel completely natural. My skin is just so smooth. I smell nice rather than like a boys' changing room. When I'm just being myself everyone else sees it. Like CLOTHES! Ahem, I can wear clothes I actually like. It's still just great when people get my name right or use the correct pronouns without thinking about it.
See you next month.
Zoe is a 20 year-old, pre-op male to female transsexual (but doesn't let it get her down). She lives in Canterbury, England where she studies Computer Science at the University of Kent at Canterbury. Her interests include somehow managing to read and contribute to large numbers of mailing lists, writing far too much on her http://www.zowie256.freeserve.co.uk website, being the president of her university's LGBT society, watching Anime, reading imported American comics and spending quality time with her girlfriend.