There’s an article kicking around on the Guardian website at the moment about a book written by a palliative care nurse that lists the most common regrets people express on their death-bed. Apparently the regret people most frequently expressed to her when she counselled them in their last days was that they’d wished they’d had the courage to be true to themselves, rather than living according to the expectations of others. This is something I imagine most people have felt at some point in time – a regret that they’d tried so hard to be what they thought others expected or wanted, maybe struggling to be ‘normal’. Sometimes, however, we reach a crisis point, and putting on a façade or continuing to try to fit into others’ ‘boxes’ no longer works.
Over the past four years or so, since I had a bit of a breakdown, I’ve been doing a huge amount of coming to terms with who I really am, instead of what I thought I ought to be. This process has at times been incredibly painful, but also immensely positive. I feel I’ve gone from being unable to process or talk about difficult things in my past for fear of rejection and the consequences of opening the Pandora’s box, to being a fairly confident (which if you’d met me then is huge progress!) and basically happy person. This journey has brought me to a place where I need to acknowledge something fundamental about my identity that will mean making huge changes to my life, some of which bring sadness and uncertainty because of how they might impact people close to me, but which I hope will ultimately mean I am freer to be myself than is currently possible….
Transgender (often shortened to trans) is an umbrella term for various things, but in my case what it means is that I have always experienced a profound mismatch between my brain and my body, in that emotionally and psychologically I am very definitely male, even though my body is female. I’ve been aware of this for a long time, though it’s only recently I’ve acquired the vocabulary to be able to express my feelings, and the confidence to admit to myself, and so to others, what has been going on beneath the surface.
My earliest memory of realising I was ‘different’ dates back to when I was four and had started reception class. It was the first time I’d realised how differently boys and girls are treated. Suddenly I had to wear a skirt and was expected to be interested in ‘girl’s stuff’ and to want to spend time with the other girls, all of which felt completely wrong. I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t being treated like one of the boys, which is what I felt I was, and while I don’t remember much from that time, I do clearly remember the disorientation and confusion I felt about what was happening.
That feeling didn’t go away as I got older, despite being allowed (though not without a few battles with my mother) to be a complete tomboy until I hit secondary school, when the gender distinctions if anything got even sharper, and being as boyish as I was resulted in bullying. I did have pretty short hair, and was ‘read’ as male on occasion, so it was very hard dealing with being called a boy in a skirt, as much as anything else because that’s how I actually felt and was scared others would find out. I suppose it’s the stage of life when children start to become sexually aware, and in a hetero-normative setting, that means clear boundaries between the sexes. Anyway, as time went on, having to put on a show for the world and ‘act girly’ felt increasingly oppressive, compounded by hitting puberty and my body beginning to develop in ways that were quite contrary to what I wanted to be happening. The result of all this was deep unhappiness and discomfort, which I dealt with by attempting to ignore my feelings as much as possible and trying to fit in with what I thought I ought to be. Bear in mind that Section 28 was still law then, and I had no outlet to be able to discuss being attracted to women, let alone desperately wanting to be a man on the outside, as well as the inside.
As I said earlier, over the past few years, I’ve learnt to be honest with myself about who I really am, and a big part of that journey has been embracing my gender identity. Just being able to acknowledge the body-brain mismatch has already been a liberating and healing experience, but in order to be really happy in my own skin, I’ve come to terms with the fact that I need to embark on a process of gender reassignment; that is, I wish to ‘transition’ from being outwardly female to being outwardly male, so that body matches brain. This is not a decision I’ve come to lightly, and not without thinking long and hard about its implications and talking it through with my partner and closest friends. If there was an alternative, like therapy, that would allow me to be happy and whole, I’d jump at it, but there isn’t.
This means I’m going to undertake the NHS process to change my body; it’s a prolonged process that will last a number of years and eventually (it can be over eighteen months from seeing a GP to getting an initial appointment at a Gender Clinic) result in it being impossible to tell if you stopped me in the street for a chat that I wasn’t born with a male body. The NHS should pay for the testosterone shots I’ll need to take for life (and which, to pre-empt some comments, cost less to buy than the prescription charge, so the NHS makes a profit!) but I know I’m almost certainly going to need to pay for the surgery to remove my breasts, which could cost over £5000. Thus, it’ll be a while before there are any physical changes.
In the short term, however, I have to begin what’s called the ‘real-life experience’; that is, I have to begin living, as far as is possible, as a man. As such, my name has changed informally and soon will officially (by Deed Poll) and I’d appreciate it if people could refer to me using male pronouns (he, his, him, etc.). I know this will take time to get used to and there will be mistakes at first; I’m not going to jump down people’s throats if they accidentally slip up. However, if folks could try their best, then I’d be grateful. Doing this is a condition of further treatment, so it’s a hurdle I have to clear and not an optional thing.
Well, there you go! No doubt reading this sparks various questions, and given most people so far have asked me the same sorts of things, here’s a brief FAQ about transgender issues, followed by some useful links:
- The best analogy I can think of for what it feels like to be trans goes something like this: imagine for the sake of argument that there’s a language called ‘male’ and another called ‘female’, within which there are different dialects and accents, but which are pretty distinct, at least to someone who struggles with languages. I’ve had to pick up the odd phrase of ‘female’ in order to be able to survive, but try as I might, I’ll never be fluent, or able to manage more than a few sentences even, whereas ‘male’ is my natural language and I can chat away in it quite happily given the chance. Anyone who’s ever found themselves in a foreign country not knowing much of the language may have experienced some of the inability to express themselves and resulting vulnerability that brings; it’s like that for me all the time. However, being stuck with a female body means I’ve never had much chance to practice my ‘male’ and so have a lot to learn about the grammar and syntax of the language, how it works, and much vocabulary to absorb. Transition is that learning process.
- Being trans is most definitely not a choice. Various scientific studies have shown that hormone levels present during foetal development, and the foetus’ sensitivity to said hormones, can create a situation where the brain develops in one direction and the body in another, resulting in the mismatch trans folks experience on a daily basis. Moreover, as I’ve already explained, the process of correcting this is costly, painful and scary, for others as well as for me, and that’s without the stigma attached to not fitting in with social conventions surrounding gender. Yes, transition is a choice, but it’s a choice between a lifetime of being miserable or being whole. It’s as stark as that.
- The process will not fundamentally change who I am. I will still be the same person, with the same personality, same abilities and faults, same likes and dislikes, same values, same faith. It’s a gender reassignment, not a full-blown personality transplant!
- Some people have asked me why I want to bother, as I hardly strike them as the lager-swilling, football-mad skinhead type. Others have suggested that transition and the desire to ‘pass’ (to be perceived as male) only serve to reinforce an unhelpful gender binary. It’s true that people who do not feel they fit into either ‘box’, gender-queer people, suffer discrimination and sometimes struggle to deal with social constructs around gender. For what it’s worth, I think gender is a spectrum and can be fluid, something I occasionally experience too. However, I don’t see that the process I’m going to undertake makes this worse, as I’m not trying to conform to a particular stereotype; the point is that I’m figuring out what it means for me, a unique individual with a particular history, to be male and perceived as such. It’s about being fully myself, not conforming to someone else’s idea of what I should be.
- For my Christian friends: I don’t know where God is in all of this, but I do know I’m loved and known completely by the same God who became human in Jesus Christ. That’s enough for now!
- Language like ‘tranny’ or ‘gender-bender’ is really offensive. Please don’t use this about or to me.
Here are the links I promised:
Leaflet (which has been made into an official NHS document) on what being transgender is all about, an explanation of its probable cause and some definitions:
Guardian blog written by a trans woman (someone changing from outwardly male to female) that has many parallels with my own story and articulates the challenges of transition really well:
Stonewall Scotland’s very helpful leaflet about supporting trans people in the workplace:
Website of the Gender Identity Research and Education Service, which works closely with the NHS:
Website of the Gender Trust, which contains useful information around terminology: