Groundhog Day

Earlier this month, the day finally came that I’d been anticipating for just over two years since taking that momentous, tentative step of asking my GP for a GIS referral. After many months of waiting, anticipating and worrying I finally had a date for my first real GIS appointment. I say real to distinguish it from the screening appointment last August, which isn’t to say that particular session wasn’t in any way authentic. It’s just that this time I knew I was at the start of something a bit more meaningful – or at least hoped so.

The appointment letter – copied to my GP – included a note that the GIS needed up-to-date results for a number of blood tests. I could have predicted that the tests that were done at the point of referral all that time ago would be wasted but hey, that seems to be the way things are. My ever-efficient GP surgery beat me to it, and actually phoned me before I contacted them to make an appointment, so at least full marks to them for that. I duly went to see the vampire phlebotomist a few days later and several phials of the red stuff were sent off for analysis. On closer inspection of the letter I noticed that the tests were a bit different to the ones I’d had done previously, and for the first time included hormone levels.

The fact that I’d already attended the screening session last August made a big difference, both emotionally and practically, and had mostly reassured me on that most thorny of topics – was I trans enough, although the passing of time had caused some of those doubts to come out to play again. This time the mantra was less about being trans enough, more about how deserving my case appeared in comparison to others who may be coping less well than me, and who were in rather more dire straits mentally or physically, especially with scarce NHS resources being spread as thinly as they are.  My mind was cast back to some of the people I’d met at my early forays to the local support group, and the mental health or addiction issues they were facing concurrently with their transition. In comparison I seemed to be coping too well.

Came the day, and in practical terms at least I knew this time where to go and where I could park my car, so no dry runs were needed. Even so, I still set off leaving far more contingency time than I needed (those who know me will understand this isn’t uncommon…), and having sailed through the unusually light traffic, arrived with almost an hour to spare before my appointment. I gave a thought for those I know who in some cases have to travel hundreds of miles by rail or coach to their GIS appointment, and take two or three days out of their lives for each consultation. I silently thanked the powers-that-be that fate decreed I only had to travel from one side of the city to the other.

It may sound a bit complacent, but as I sat in my car whiling away the time listening to Ken Bruce,  I realised I’d given no thought to the issues that a few short years ago tended to consume me about how I looked, did I ‘pass’ and what others’ reaction might be. That’s not to say that when I was getting ready earlier I’d not thought about making sure I looked presentable, but what had changed was that it was no longer from the perspective of fear or uncertainty. I was simply a woman wanting to look her best for a particular situation, rather than trying to fool anyone into thinking I was anything other than who I am, if that makes sense. That change in thinking has been quite subtle in recent months, and recognising it made me feel positive that something significant had shifted in my head.

I presented myself at the reception in good time and sat to wait for my appointment. I have to say that based on my experiences thus far, this particular GIS seems to manage time very well indeed.

groundhog-clock

Unfortunately, I still read the occasional horror story of patients waiting several hours to be seen, but right on time a friendly face popped round waiting room door and invited me into the consulting room. Anna introduced herself as my Lead Clinician and said she’d be with me throughout the process, explaining that even though I’d be seeing different specialists she’d be my point of contact for any queries, and generally be ‘in my corner’.

During the following hour-and-a-half it felt like we were covering much of the same ground as in my screening appointment last August. Anna recognised this and apologised for the repetition, but explained that for many patients eight months can be a long time, and much can change – for good or ill. This made complete sense, plus she said it gave her the opportunity to get to know me first-hand as a person, rather than just a ‘case’ through someone else’s notes. One or two personal areas were explored in a bit more depth than before, but overall the process was about making sure I was still OK in the ‘three pillars’ of physical, psychological and social health and well-being. Perhaps disappointingly, no reference was made to the results of the blood tests, which in fact hadn’t been looked at and Anna said weren’t actually necessary until the next stage. I think we can all guess what’s going to happen before my next appointment.

As we went along, the transition process was explained to me. Not surprisingly, this is going to involve yet more waiting as Anna told me that following her own assessment based on our meeting, she would arrange for me to see one the team’s consultants – there are two now, both of whom I was assured are very nice and friendly. Apparently, even in a nurse-led pathway only a doctor can still make a formal diagnosis. That’s the next key stage on the critical path, and it seems nothing can happen until that prognostication is made, but once it has been then all manner of support kicks in. She estimated a wait of about three months to see a consultant, considering that we’re approaching the holiday season which can reduce availability. Seems fair enough to me – everyone’s entitled to a break. After that I’ll be referred to an endocrinologist – a further estimated three month wait – and assuming all’s well health-wise I’ll be prescribed my first HRT at that point.

I got the impression that there’s been some relaxation of qualifying periods to allow the GIS to treat more patients. I may yet be proved wrong, but I sense that the GIS is adopting a more pragmatic approach, at least to the early stages of treatment. Whilst there was no question about needing to demonstrate at least 12 months Real Life Experience (RLE) before surgery can even be considered, it would seem that if someone has come this far in the process, that they’re sound in mind, body and spirit and various practicalities have been addressed – e.g. legal name change and being ‘out’ in sufficient areas of one’s life – then it will be taken as an adequate indication that the patient is serious and HRT – whilst not quite a ‘done deal’ – will follow with less fuss than perhaps it may have done previously.

As the session drew to a close, Anna apologised if it had felt a bit gruelling. I said that was the last word I’d have used to describe it, and that everything had felt really positive. On reflection, I suppose we had explored a few more sensitive topics than before (which I’m not going to go into detail about here – sorry!) but it had all felt necessary, relevant and appropriate.

So I’m well and truly ‘in the system’, but do I feel any different about it?  I certainly feel calmer and more positive about the future than I have done for ages and, importantly, my faith in the process has thus far been vindicated. As I wrote in my last blog, everyone’s experience with their respective GIS seems to be different, but so far I’ve found the people I’ve encountered knowledgeable and friendly, and there’s no question that they only want to help. I’ve never once felt ‘challenged’ or that I’ve had to go out of my way to justify myself. On the downside, the months of waiting continue to be the worst thing, but Anna pointed me in the direction of some coping strategies in case I find myself in too much of a dip again, which we both agreed was likely. She also said not to forget about rewarding myself on the good days, or for progress made. As if I needed an excuse to go shopping after my appointment.

Whilst I’m still officially without a formal diagnosis yet, Anna was able to dispel most remaining concerns about being ‘trans enough’ or sufficiently deserving of support. Seemingly these are very common doubts, and Anna reassured me that I seemed a relatively straightforward case (her words) and that she couldn’t foresee any problems.

I titled this post Groundhog Day originally because so much of this appointment mirrored that of my initial screening appointment last year, but then I began thinking about that particular film – in particular how it ends [spoiler alert for anyone who’s not seen it – look away now].

Groundhog Day isn’t just about repetition; it’s about the central character trying to become a different person (albeit not exactly through choice, at least not at first). Trial and error, measuring the changes they make against the world until finally getting it right and walking out of Groundhog Day into a bright new future. The analogy might not be perfect, but I can see similarities with my own situation. So much has happened in the past three years or so since those early days of nervously venturing out into the world, expecting ridicule but receiving nothing but support and encouragement. There have been plenty of giant leaps and momentous steps, but most of the changes have been small and subtle – changes in thinking as much as in practical terms. Transition no longer seems a remote possibility or something that only happens to other people. It’s becoming a reality, and while my overall philosophy remains ‘one step at a time’, I’m beginning to see some light at the end of the tunnel at last.

Significantly, the GIS appointment has given me the clarity and confidence to confront the remaining social issues I need to tackle. One in particular was broached within a week of my appointment, but for now I’ll keep you in suspense and simply say that I’ll explain more in a future post.

Thanks for reading.

Keeping the dream alive

The observant may have noticed this is almost my first post in nearly four months, and that I’ve been taking a bit of a back-seat in the blogosphere generally. I apologise for the fact that I’ve also not been reading others’ blogs as assiduously as usual, or adding my two penn’orth to comments sections. It’s nothing personal, I promise – I just needed a bit of a break.

Truth be told, there’s been very little happening in my life that’s seemed interesting enough to write about, the closest item of topical interest probably being that I’ve completed my course of laser hair removal, which I’ll come to in a bit. The absence of anything else strange or startling happening for the last six months or so has caused me to feel a bit like I’ve been living in a kind of suspended animation, waiting for something to kick-start me back into life.

There are other reasons. One can only write so many times bemoaning the seemingly interminable wait for the first GIS appointment before it starts to become repetitive, especially for those who may have forgotten what it’s like, or were referred in the days when the wait was measured in months, not years.  wait_square_sticker_3_x_3Whilst no doubt well-meant, advice and suggestions about what I should or could be doing in the meantime, or to speed up the process are rarely as helpful as the giver may intend, as indeed are reminders that the GIS is not some kind of silver-bullet and that I should (that word again) by now have a transition plan that dots all the is and crosses all the ts, preferably supported by a Gantt Chart and full Critical Path Analysis (OK, I made that last bit up). A dear friend coined the term transplaining in an email to me, which I think sums up pretty well the way ‘advice’ is sometimes perceived. That person knows exactly where I’m coming from, and continues to be amazingly helpful with her own words. I’ve probably ‘transplained’ myself to others unwittingly, and if so then I apologise. We’re all at different stages of our journey and keen to impart the benefit of our experience to those following behind, which in theory is a good thing but sometimes can feel like a telling-off, and end up leaving the the other person feeling deflated. We’d do well to remember that sometimes when people offload or have a moan about something, all they might want is a sympathetic ear and not to have all their shortcomings fixed. I shall leave that there.

Rightly or wrongly, actually getting onto the GIS pathway is incredibly important to me and the way I want to handle my transition. In my mind it provides an element of validation when precipitating conversations with the remaining significant people in my life who still need to know about my journey. It provides the catalyst for conversations at work, if only to put the right people on notice that this is happening rather than trigger full-blown workplace transition just yet. I hope it will help me feel better supported and let certain people know my direction of travel. Others in a similar situation might handle things differently, but this is the way I’ve realised it has to be for me.

What’s been keeping me afloat in recent months are the recollections of my screening appointment with the GIS last August which left me on a high, and feeling the most

never_give_up

Always a sucker for the inspirational quote, me…

positive I’d ever felt since this journey began – yet as I remarked at the time there was the sting in the tail of still having to wait months for my first appointment proper. Unfortunately, like many positive and uplifting experiences over the past three or four years – indeed in life generally – time has the effect of slowly dulling the memory of floating out the clinic on a cloud of euphoria and optimism, believing that anything was possible. Last year, I felt I was starting to surf the wave of transition – albeit in a small way, more like what you find on a seaside holiday rather than the huge breakers of the Old Spice advert – now there’s a memory for those of a certain age. Slowly, everything seemed to be falling into place. Unfortunately as time’s passed, the more it’s felt like someone slowly letting the air out of my balloon (to mix metaphors). Despite a number of reasons to be cheerful, after the high of the screening appointment, the wait got the GIS proper began to get me down, and on the worst days I’ve ended up wondering if I’ve left it all too late or whether I’ve even got the energy to go through transition. From all the carpe diem moments of recent years, I began thinking I’d seized the wrong day. So, as the winter months set in, I decided to back off a bit as there seemed little point forging ahead with much more until I had a clearer idea of timescales.

One thing I have pressed ahead with is facial laser hair removal which, although nothing else much was going on did at least give me the feeling I was doing something. I completed the programme recently, and am awaiting a final review at the end of the month. It’s not perfect – and probably never can be 100% – but the difference is remarkable and worth every zap and moment of gritted teeth (those who’ve been through it will know!). I think a little bit of tidying up may still be needed but, as they say, the proof of the pudding is in the eating and I can safely say that the days of ‘specialist’ foundation are behind me. The difference this makes to one’s confidence – let alone how long is needed to get ready to go out – is unbelievable. I think even that in extremis now I could get away with nothing more than a bit of lippy and mascara. Plus in practical terms it’s one less thing to worry about from the point of view of transitioning.

Returning to last August’s screening appointment, I was told to expect a delay of at least a further eight months before my first appointment proper. Despite my irrational fears that I must be slipping down the waiting list in favour of more deserving cases, and the occasional suggestion that I was doing myself a disservice and extending my wait by not pestering the medical secretaries every couple of weeks to make sure I wasn’t forgotten, almost eight months to the day I came home to find a letter on the mat with the tell-tale red Private & Confidential stamp of my GIS, offering my first appointment proper in the next couple of weeks.

I should be more trusting.  The wait is nearly over – now it really begins.

In memory of Molly

A couple of months after I came out to my wonderful neighbour Charlotte on a summer’s day in 2014, out of the blue she received a handwritten letter from the person she’d always thought of until then as her elder brother, with whom she’d not been in touch with for many years. The letter explained how they’d not been very well, but thanks to the care and support of the local hospital had made a full recovery. However, the episode had finally brought out into the open some 60-plus years of gender dysphoria that had been buried deep, and which for health’s sake could no longer be denied. In fact, circumstances had caused the doctors to make an urgent referral to the nearest GIC.

Charlotte called to tell me what she knew about her sibling’s situation, and where she was on her journey. We both agreed it was one of those amazing, inexplicable coincidences that sometimes happen in life and that maybe happen for a reason, because in her letter Molly (though she wasn’t yet called that) was asking Charlotte for help and advice.

I should say at this point that Molly was already 76 then, and succeeded in living quite happily without the internet or even a telephone, hence all communication with her sister was through the medium of the hand-written letter. Also, she was fiercely independent and although she sought advice, could sometimes be reluctant to act on it – often frustratingly so!

Molly’s decision to transition fully had been made as soon as she’d recovered from her illness, and with the full support of the GIC. For her, there was no period of uncertainty, no worrying about whether or not she ‘passed’ or the reaction of others. All Molly wanted was to live as the women she’d always known she was, and if that meant going to the shops in town wearing a man’s shirt with a skirt and cardigan, then so be it. Feeling right inside was the most important thing for her.

Charlotte did try to gently suggest that life might be a bit easier if Molly perhaps made a little bit more effort to appear feminine when in public, if only for practical reasons such as using ‘facilities’ or changing rooms. I was happy to offer what advice I could from my still limited experience, and passed on a hairpiece for Molly to try the next time Charlotte went to visit her. From what Charlotte said, I gather Molly was pleasantly surprised by the effect, although didn’t fancy wearing one as a permanent fixture. To her, things like that were unimportant compared to how she actually felt – what other people thought was of no concern to her.

I was privileged to meet Molly over a cup of tea about a year ago when she came to visit Charlotte and other family members living nearby. She was a warm and friendly soul, and we immediately hit it off and began comparing notes which, despite our age difference were remarkably similar. For years Molly had experienced the classic pattern of confusion and denial that so many of us would recognise, and the frustration that for so much of her life gender dysphoria had been something one dare not speak about, let alone admit. In particular, she pointed out that gender identity issues were frequently – of course incorrectly – linked with homosexuality, which was illegal in the UK until 1967. No wonder people of that generation kept quiet. Molly had fought down her feelings for most of her life until finally something had just snapped, and she felt action had to be taken before it was too late.

By the time I met her Molly had started HRT and, to her pleasant surprise, had been told by the GIC that despite her age, she’d been cleared for surgery and this was likely to be only a matter of months away. Molly had quietly and without fuss legally changed her name – she told me how incredibly easy this had been – and was living full-time as the women she always knew she was. Molly was content, and not fazed in the slightest by the sort of things many of us spend far too much time fretting about.

Then, a few weeks ago Charlotte emailed me with the news that Molly had been diagnosed with extensive cancer with no prospect of cure, and had been admitted to hospital.  Without fuss, she’d been placed in a female ward and told Charlotte that clinical staff were treating her as they would any other woman, and hadn’t questioned her gender identity even for a moment.

Sadly, the prognosis was not good and a matter of days later Molly passed away peacefully.

Although she was unable to complete her journey, Molly’s story is a beacon of hope for any of us who may be worrying about having left transition too late in life or that GICs are judgemental, as some would have us believe or we imagine. She received nothing but positive affirmation and loving support for the person she’d managed to become from everyone – personal or professional – whose lives she touched in her final years, and I know would have taken great comfort that during her last days she was cared for with quiet dignity as the woman she always knew she was.

Rest in peace, Molly. It was a joy to know you, and may your story bring hope and inspiration to us all.

Reflections on youth, the media and everything…

The BBC recently screened a documentary on the subject of transgender children and teens, entitled Transgender Kids: Who Knows Best? The programme met with a certain amount of criticism and some vitriol from the trans* community for addressing the issue that some professionals believe there’s evidence to suggest that kids who identify as transgender don’t always know their own mind and that, if left alone and/or exposed to toys, situations and clothing that’s more appropriate to their gender assigned at birth, some will ‘settle down’ and any dysphoria will disappear with the passing of time. Some who oppose this see it as a way of trying to ‘cure’ gender dysphoria.

My personal reaction to the documentary was that it wasn’t as anti-transgender as some had made it out to be. Admittedly, the programme did show a couple of examples of when the wrong decision had been taken – or narrowly avoided – to proceed with reassignment, but I took this as being in the interests of balance rather than any told you so kind of way. Professional opinion is always going to vary, and contrary to some views expressed in the documentary, I didn’t get the impression any of the clinicians expounding a more laissez-faire approach believed they were trying to ‘cure’ gender dysphoria (as some were suggesting) – merely allowing children the space to be absolutely certain of their identity before they – or their parents – took any irreversible decisions.

That said,there’s no question in my mind that a child knows whether or not they ‘fit’ in to the gender roles and environment that parents and society in general confer upon them based on their gender-assigned-at-birth – and also that, if not addressed, that sense of dissonance is invariably carried with them into adulthood. Regardless of whether that sense of discord turns out to be full-blown gender dysphoria or not, it needs to be acknowledged and explored.

I make no secret of the fact that I’m not exactly in the first flush of youth, and watching documentaries such as this, My Transsexual Summer, I Am Jazz etc. etc. have a bittersweet effect on me. The mere fact that such programmes are broadcast on mainstream media and that we can have public discussions about gender identity in young people, shows the progress society has made since my own youth. I think it’s fantastic that children are encouraged and given the opportunity to explore their gender identity at an early age, though I’m certain that for those involved it’s far from easy to instigate the conversation – but still a darn sight easier than it was 40-odd years ago.

We didn’t even have the language. The word transgender didn’t enter my vocabulary until many years after I experienced those first feelings that something about my life and what the world expected of me just didn’t feel right. I spent my childhood and teenage years trying to be someone I could never be, and not understanding why.

I wonder how many of us can, with the wisdom of hindsight, look back now and see the signs? In my case some of my earliest memories are of my mother letting me play with her cosmetics, and clip-clopping about the house in her shoes while carrying her handbag. I remember wanting to be like her, soft and feminine, and actually feeling repulsion at the masculine characteristics and behaviours of my father and older brothers. I remember hating some of the clothes I had to wear, and once at primary school felt absolutely bereft that I couldn’t join in the girls’ games and be friends with them, rather than the boys. But at that age and in that era, the only thought possible was the wish that I’d been born a girl, and to have expressed it out loud would have been social suicide even at those tender years, and would have simply drawn the comment of “Don’t be silly!” if I’d attempted to articulate the same feelings to my parents. Child psychologists existed at that time, but were only for what were termed ‘problem kids’ – those who were disruptive or who had special needs. Special needs is a relatively recent descriptor – the derogatory terms used in those days, which I won’t repeat, said what you needed to know about how such kids were regarded. Few, if any, in 1960s Bradford would have even known what gender identity was.

The relevant memories of my teenage years at single-sex school are still too painful to share. It’s enough to say that thoughts that were already deep had to be buried even deeper to survive. Like many I suspect from that era, manifestations of gender dysphoria became secretive and something to be ashamed of, compounded by the fact that society conflated gender identity with sexual orientation at a time when homosexuality had only recently been legalised in the UK.  No wonder so many of us grew up repressed and slightly damaged.

I’d already started work before I first saw anything in the media about gender dysphoria. Some of a certain age may remember a BBC documentary called – sensitively – A Change of Sex. I was still living at home at the time, and it was a miracle my parents didn’t turn the television over to another channel. While they busied themselves with other things, I sat on the sofa and took in every word and frame of that programme. I recall the overwhelming feeling of ‘I wish that were me’, feeling envious at how someone could have such certainty and self-confidence, and wondering in those pre-internet days how on earth anyone found a route in to that kind of world. That was probably the first time in my life everything clicked together and began to make sense, although the downside was that I still couldn’t talk to anyone about it, let alone do anything. It would be many, many years before that became possible.

Which brings me back to the present-day documentaries. The openness of the conversation means that young people of today grow up with a far greater awareness and insight of identity issues beyond the binary, and without the stigma that once existed. And that’s wonderful. What comes across is that if there are any issues in society, then on the whole it tends to be the older generation that have the problems coping with the more open attitudes that exist in society – something that manifested itself in certain other political arenas in 2016 on both sides of the Atlantic. More on that subject I shall not say.

The bittersweet referred to earlier is that inevitably when I watch such documentaries and see such comparative openness in the younger generation, I can’t help but wonder what might have been had such attitudes prevailed and support been available in my own formative years. It’s all ifs, buts and maybes but especially in my tortured teenage years I can’t help but wonder if life might have turned out differently even by just having someone to talk to who understood how I was feeling, and could have helped me make sense of my gender dysphoria.

But to paraphrase Wordsworth, the child is mother of the woman and whatever is suppressed in youth has a habit of coming out in later life. We should celebrate the fact that the younger generation is generally more knowledgeable, accepting and tolerant of difference than the baby-boomer generation, and thus far better equipped to deal with identity issues either in themselves or others. Being transgender is no big deal to them, and paradoxically they’re the ones that have ended up supporting our journeys, one way or another.

To those in the trans* community who were critical of the messages in Transgender Kids: Who Knows Best?, I say this: Whatever the rights or wrongs of the specific ways in which gender dysphoria is treated in children, simply being able to have a public debate about the topic on primetime TV is progress in itself, and that in itself shouldn’t be taken for granted. Far better to discuss the relative merits of prescribing hormone blockers than allow the less-enlightened in society to try and sweep gender dysphoria under the carpet again.

Seasoning

For many people, I know that a certain amount of emotional stock-taking happens around this time of year. Those of us experiencing similar journeys must find, like me, that what for most folk are straightforward seasonal rituals take on a poignancy that only those in our social circles to whom we are ‘out’ can possibly understand.

I’ve never been a great fan of Christmas ever since the magic of childhood was left behind. Of course, I understand now one of the reasons why as so

xmas

Happy Christmas

many of my past Christmases have been about trying to go along with what others told me was a ‘good time’ and failing spectacularly. I’m not saying that my then little-understood gender dysphoria is the only explanation, but I still have uncomfortable memories of trying to fit in to a role and rituals that didn’t feel right, and feeling something more than just envy at women taking on the ceremony of ‘getting ready’, like it was something I was missing out on and wanted desperately to be a part of. This Boots advert from a few years ago sums it up pretty well  – watch for the moments at 0:51 and 1:14 and you’ll get some idea of how I’ve felt many, many times across the years.

One of my current frustrations is the not knowing how much longer this journey is going to be. The simple act of signing Christmas cards recently was irritating in that I still had to sign so many as Bob, although at least more were signed by Ruth this year than last. Glass maybe a quarter, if not quite half-full. The other seasonal ritual that had me groaning inwardly with frustration took place in the workplace. My manager, bless her, had got the entire team presents – which was a lovely gesture –

makeupheaven

Dear Santa…

however, she’d arranged them into two piles of boys’ gifts and girls’ gifts, so of course handed me a box from the former pile. I’ve no idea what’s in it – cos I’m a good girl and don’t open my pressies until Christmas Day – but I did so desperately want to point out that the other pile would perhaps contain a more suitable gift. And goodness knows what Secret Santa has brought…

It’s the things like this – the trivia, if you like, rather than the big stuff – that keep serving as a reminder that something has got to change, and change soon, because I’m realising my sense of dysphoria is becoming increasingly acute the more time passes – moreso than I could have possibly imagined a few short years ago. I wrote last time about a key event that I feel has to happen to unlock the future, but notwithstanding family matters I’m beginning to wonder how much longer I can carry on like this…

It has occurred to me throughout the festive preparations that this may well be the last Christmas I spend as Bob – but then I remember thinking same this time last year. What’s changed is the intensity with which I feel the inevitability that something’s going to happen over the coming 12 months. For one thing, if my calculations are correct my first appointment proper with the Gender Identity Service (GIS) should be sometime in spring, or not long after, and I’ve always said that that’s going to have the effect of ‘validating’ me – not that it should be necessary of course, but I hope you understand what I mean in that it may help in others’ eyes, and support any remaining difficult conversations. Change has to happen, one way or another.

In other news… well, there isn’t much, really. Some friends who knew about Ruth but had never actually met her did so a few Saturdays ago when I cooked them one of my curry feasts. As is so often the case nowadays, after the initial surprise (at Ruth, not the curry) and a few inevitable questions the evening settled down in the way dinner parties do. What’s always lovely when that happens is that I get a sense of acceptance and ‘fitting in’ that I’ve never fully felt as Bob. Those who know will understand, but I actually feel more socially confident nowadays when the world sees Ruth rather than Bob – something that a few years ago I could never have imagined myself saying.

Other than that, I’ve pretty much stuck to my word of not coming out to anyone new or pushing boundaries until my most immediate family are told of my intentions, which I’m hoping will be sooner than later. Yes, there’s still much inner turmoil at the thought, and the how and the when remain unknown. All I know is that I trust the moment will present itself when the time is right, and that forcing a conversation isn’t the way.

Finally, I offer my apologies for the brevity of this post and the fact that it isn’t exactly the most interesting or enlightening – but sometimes that’s just the way life is. I shall leave you with one of my favourite musical offerings for this time of year, and one that hardly ever gets played these days

Season’s greetings to one and all, and may 2017 bring everything you wish for.

Family Ties

So a few weeks ago I finally grasped one of the remaining nettles that’s been waiting to be grasped for a while. In the big scheme of things it didn’t feel as momentous as some of my other comings-out, but it was significant nonetheless. But as it happened, it ended up giving me pause for thought rather than my usual elation at others’ absence of surprise and general acceptance upon being told of my situation and intentions.

ties

No, not THAT kind of tie…

My immediate family has never been especially close-knit in the way families often are. We’ve always got along, taken an interest in each others’ welfare and I can’t recall a single time when there’s been any conflict or disturbance between us over the years. I suppose ‘benign’ would be a good word to describe our relationship, though not in a negative way.

I’m the youngest, and by quite a number of years. My eldest brother passed away a few years ago, leaving me with one surviving sibling who’s married and lives about 200 miles away. Although we talk on the phone quite regularly we actually meet only rarely. I felt news about Ruth was something that should be imparted face-to face, and thus it wasn’t through fear that I was holding back – simply that we hadn’t seen each other for a couple of years. Finally, by some miracle my brother, sister-in-law and I finally got around to meeting up after a gap of almost two years, and I was determined not to let the chance pass.

Having recently moved house and as a consequence being nearer to the rail network, travel is a bit easier for them, so we arranged to all meet up in the nearby town where our parents used to live – a bit of a sentimental journey, if you like. It’s a pretty place, and the weather was bright and sunny so on arrival we all went for a walk on the nearby moors. Conversation meandered as it does, catching up with all the usual family news and so forth, and I kept wondering how I was going to slip the subject naturally into the discourse. Then the topic conveniently turned to matters medical, so I took a deep breath and seized the opportunity. The ensuing conversation went something like this:

Me:     Talking of doctors, I was referred to a clinic myself last year. Actually, it’s a Gender Identity Clinic and I’m on the waiting list to be treated for dysphoria. A couple of years ago I realised I couldn’t hide my need to live my life as a woman any longer.

[Silence]

Me:     It’s something that’s always been there and I decided it was time I was honest that this is the way I’ve felt for years.

[Silence]

SiL:      So how does that actually feel, then, to be a woman?

Me:     [reeling somewhat at the directness] Erm, it’s just who I am. I can’t really explain.

I should perhaps point out here that my sister-in-law was a social worker for many years, and with hindsight it was pretty obvious she’d gone into ‘professional mode’ as she processed my revelation.

[More silence]

Bro:        Oh, I guess it must be really complicated, but I can see that you’ve done the right thing. It can’t have been easy and I appreciate you telling us.

SiL:         What about xxx?  [insert name of Number One Son – N1S]

Me:        He doesn’t know yet. That’s one of the many issues I’m working through. In fact I’d welcome your professional advice.

SiL:         Have you told his school? That’s a good place to start. They usually have a policy for these things. It can be quite difficult you know – quite a shock, and could make him a target. You need to be careful.

By this point I was starting to wish I’d kept my mouth shut, as none of my ‘coming out’ conversations had ever gone this way before. I was trying to figure out the silences, as I could almost hear the cogs whirring.

It feels very selfish to say this, but the absence of any enquiry as to how I’d been coping with this burden and how I was took me aback, as the assumption was being made that I was fine and sailing along blissfully. Although some compassion and warmth did emerge later in the day, my sister-in-law’s initial reaction was unexpected and started to make me wary about how much more I should share, or if I’d just made a huge mistake. This was unlike the supportive conversations I’ve experienced from others before and was a very measured response. Not particularly judgemental, just a bit awkward and restrained which left me feeling unsure how the news had been taken. As time passed though, everyone seemed to lighten up a bit – I don’t think I’ve been disowned yet.

Fast-forward a few days, and another bolt from the blue. As a personal value, I never swear anyone to secrecy when I tell them my news, simply ask that they treat the information with respect to me and others – there’s nothing worse than being given a secret and not being able to share it under any circumstance. So maybe I shouldn’t really have been surprised when a person who’s carried the knowledge of Ruth with her longer than anyone finally felt the need to offload to others close to her. Over a cup of tea one afternoon, the Sainted Kate revealed to me that a few days previously she’d finally felt she had to tell her parents about me. I was a bit taken aback at first, but then she explained how hard it had become whenever they asked her ‘how’s Bob?, and she was having to lie to them. Far from being annoyed, I could see her point and told her she’d done the right thing and that it wasn’t really a problem as far as I was concerned, but naturally I was interested in their reaction and slightly concerned about what awaited me when I next saw them – be that as Bob still, or Ruth. In a way it opens up possibilities that previous I’d dismissed as never likely to happen, but then again they would have had to know eventually. It’s that first time that will be awkward, especially as their reactions have only been reported; somehow it feels different to when I’ve had the conversation myself as I’m unable to gauge reactions first-hand.

Kate’s father is not exactly in the first flush of youth, shall we say, yet sprightly for his age and the two of us have always got on well together from the first time we met. He’s also very traditional and, as many of his generation tend to do, occasionally comes out with views that some would regard nowadays as politically incorrect – as indeed did my own parents while they were still alive. From what Kate tells me, he couldn’t quite get past the ‘I don’t get it – why does he want to wear a dress?’ stage, though as I’ve probably said before, if you’ve no experience of gender dysphoria and it’s never touched your life that’s probably a not unreasonable reaction – especially if you’ve lived most of your life in an era where such matters were brushed conveniently under the carpet. I hope that when we next meet he’ll understand I’m still the same person he’s known these past ten or so years, and that I’ve not undergone a personality transplant, or am planning to do so. It remains to be seen, but regardless of outcome it’ll be what it’ll be. I can’t change who I am at will just to fit someone else’s sensibilities. It’s still going to feel very strange, though.

Given my experience with my sister-in-law a few days earlier, Kate’s mother’s reported reaction was remarkably consistent. ‘What about N1S?’ was also her first thought – not of her daughter, not of me, but how my situation will affect him. Seems there’s a theme emerging. Other than that I’ve been led to believe she was fine, if a bit surprised – which I suppose is encouraging.

too-difficult-box

Where too much has been kept so far…

Telling N1S and his mother has always been there as a must-do task, but for a long time has felt a long way off in the distance, something to put back in the box marked Too Hard for another day. Better to wait until there’s more certainty, blame the long waiting list for my first GIS appointment. Something out of my hands, and thus a convenient excuse. But these two unrelated incidents have had a profound effect on my thinking, to the extent that I don’t feel I can push boundaries any further until I’ve had the necessary conversations of enlightenment with N1S and his mother. Put another way, what was once a stone in the road has grown to become a massive boulder, and largely because of my own inattention and prevarication.

Having been buoyed by recent progress, as this realisation – corroborated by two independent sources, each of whom I consider family in their own way – sank in, it had the effect of releasing a whole pack of brain weasels that I thought had been contained, or rather had conveniently forgotten about. The fear of what it might do to a fine young person who, as far it’s ever possible to tell, seems to be sailing through life and lapping up all it has to offer. What if news of my condition knocks him off course, or worse?

I was reassured by a conversation with my neighbour, who’s been an absolute tower of strength throughout this journey. She’s never met N1S but knows of him through what I can best describe as the Six Degrees of Separation rule – the theory that anyone on the planet is connected to any other person through no more than five intermediaries – in her case it’s just two, via a community organisation of which she and N1S’s mother are both members. She also knows how I talk about him, and reminded me about the fantastic progress he’s making in life, with a social conscience and world-view far better developed than many adults – on both sides of the Atlantic, it must be said. Truth be told, I can’t imagine him reacting badly at all, but that still doesn’t make the subject any the easier to broach. And I’m still not certain about timing. I still feels as if it’s be better waiting until I’ve actually got my first GIS appointment proper under my belt to add an element of ‘official’ validity, so to speak, but as I was reassured by my neighbour, the moment will present itself when the time is right, as so often has been the case thus far. Watch this space.

I’ve made the decision to take my foot off the gas until that conversation has taken place. Thoughts of coming out at work, for example, have been shelved for the time being, as have plans to introduce Ruth to one or two social groups to which I belong. No doubt my news will continue to spread organically through those who already know, but I feel duty-bound to make the next big coming-out to be with N1S, whenever that may be.

Despite having effectively pressed a virtual pause button, I’ve also realised that there is a huge incentive to do the right thing – because once I’ve overcome this particular hurdle and provided it goes the right way, the open road lies ahead. Or, to mix metaphors further, it could be like a cork popping out of the bottle, because there’ll be nothing much more to hold me back.

And the more I think about it, the more that feels both scary and delicious.

Hair today, gone tomorrow

A couple of months ago, following one moan too many from me about how much I hated having to constantly cover up the dreaded blue shadow, the Sainted Kate returned from an appointment of her own at a certain laser clinic and announced that she’d made one for me in a few days’ time. It’s something I’d been talking about for a while but done nothing about, so she’d decided it was time I needed a bit of a nudge  – or rather, an almighty shove.

As regular readers will know, it’s still going to be several months before I float to the top of the Gender Identity Service’s waiting list, and in between all the whinging about delays, it’s crossed my mind that I could actually take advantage of my ‘part-time’ status and maybe get certain things out of the way that might be more problematic once I’m full-time.

I did actually investigate hair removal last year but didn’t see it through – although maybe it’s just as well, knowing what I know now about the difference between IPL and genuine laser. Since then, Kate suggested several times that I should make an appointment with the clinic she’s used happily for many years, but fear and procrastination got the better of me. As she handed me the appointment card, Kate announced she’d be happy to come along with me for moral support – or, I suspected, rather to make sure that I turned up!

So, given the concerns I had before starting the process, I thought that sharing my personal experience here as the treatment progresses over the coming months might help allay fears of others contemplating the same procedure and may shed some light (no pun intended) on the process. I must however provide the disclaimer that these are my experiences with my skin and my hair, and that what works for me might be very different for someone else. I should also mention that I’m talking about facial hair removal only, as I’m fortunate in not having to worry about getting rid of follicles elsewhere.

Came the day, and the consultation with a, erm, consultant involved a comprehensive fact-find about me, my skin and general health. As you might expect, the focus was on how my skin reacted to sunlight – basically how easily it burned without suncream. This would determine my skin type and colouring, and thus how powerful the laser could be so that it would do its job effectively without causing damage.

I’ll confess that this was where my worries had been up to this point. I’d read tales of bad experiences and seen pictures of badly inflamed skin, in some cases burned, and was worried about having to explain any tell-tale post-treatment effects to those who don’t yet know my situation – to say nothing of the possibility of permanent scarring. The consultant explained to me that unfortunately there are a number of clinics out there whose first consideration is to offer treatment at the cheapest possible price and while it’s not true of all of them, unfortunately some unscrupulous ones tend to skimp on preparation, training and equipment maintenance to keep costs down.  As with so many things in life we tend to get what we pay for, though many still can’t see it. The bottom line is that if you’re left with burns and blisters, then it can only mean that the clinic has not taken enough care of you. I was also reassured by the fact that this particular clinic is NHS-accredited, so the chances are that I’d have ended up here anyway on a GIS referral – eventually.

Digressing slightly, having taken this step has definitely helped alleviate some of my feelings of being stuck and frustrated, and so is having a positive effect on my mood as well as my face. In a very small way it could almost be said that my transition has begun, if one considers that what I’m undergoing is irreversible. It also occurred to me that doing this now i.e. before going full-time is perhaps a sensible way of going about things. Far better to look a little unkempt facially as Bob than Ruth – not that I think I’ve looked particularly unkempt, and my plans of timing each session of treatment to coincide with a day off work afterwards have thus far proved unnecessary. At risk of tempting fate, all the worries and fears of my face erupting like an angry pustule after treatment have been completely unfounded. The other myth dispelled was that it’s necessary to allow a few days’ worth of hair growth beforehand – something I was led to believe was necessary after having read others’ experiences. The reality is quite the reverse, as laser works most effectively if the skin is shaved a few hours beforehand to allow deeper and more effective penetration.

So far I’ve received two treatments out of a course of eight, and even at this early stage I’m delighted with the progress. The reason for needing as many as eight – sometimes more – treatments is down to the way in which our hair grows. Basically you can’t zap them all at once and have to wait for some to come out of hiding first. The other reality check I must mention is that laser only works on darker hairs, although the lighter ones become finer and their growth rate is slowed, hence what the nurse kindly refers to as my ‘blonde’ hairs refuse to budge under the power of the laser, so ultimately electrolysis may be necessary if they remain annoyingly unfeminine.

The treatment itself is not the most pleasant of experiences, but the sensation is bearable – akin to the sharp feeling of repeatedly being splashed by hot fat or twanged with a rubber band.

The machine warming up.

The machine warming up.

The zaps are administered in short bursts with time in between to catch your breath, especially when the technician is working in more sensitive areas like the upper lip and tip of the chin. The immediate aftermath (in my case, others’ skin may react differently) is that the treated area looks a bit red and feels hot – I imagine a bit like someone has slapped you across the face, though I’m pleased to say I can’t speak from actual experience! After a couple of hours the first time and less the second, there was virtually no detectable evidence that the procedure had taken place other than that which was desired – a reduction in dark facial hair that is noticeable to me, though gradual enough so as not to draw the attention of others.

After the first treatment the skin around my jawline felt slightly numb for a couple of days, and a faint deep bruising sensation persisted for about 10 days afterwards as the follicles – or rather what was left of them – recovered from the trauma to which they’d been subjected. Further myths that proved unfounded were that I’d be unable to shave for a few days, nor should I apply make-up. Wrong on both counts! In fact I applied a light foundation about four hours after the first treatment with no ill effects whatsoever. As far as the former is concerned, to my delight I’ve discovered I can pretty much get away with shaving on alternate days without my face looking like Desperate Dan – and this after only 25% of my planned course of treatment.

The effects of the second session just over a week ago were less dramatic than the first, but certainly noticeable to me. As anticipated, the ‘blonde’ hairs remain stubborn but the overall result is an already significantly reduced blue shadow, about which I’ve been particularly self-conscious ever since coming out. Whilst I can’t quite ditch the Double Wear Extra Cover just yet, hopefully it’s only a matter of time before I can think about using a lighter foundation.

So far, so good. I shall provide further updates as treatment progresses, although based on my experience thus far such posts may be rather brief and uninteresting! Finally, if you want to watch exactly what goes on in a session, there’s a video clip here – which was also interesting for me to watch for reasons that should become obvious…

Thanks for reading.