National LGBT Survey (UK)

This is just a quick post to share a link to the National LGBT Survey being conducted by the UK Government Equalities office.

I know some people love surveys and others hate them, but this looks worthwhile and explores a variety of different elements about our experience. I’d suggest it’s worth 10 minutes of anyone’s time and can only help. It’s open until 15 October 2017.

Click here, or copy and paste the URL below into your browser’s address bar to complete it.

https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/national-lgbt-survey

Back with more updates soon.

Slow, slow, quick, quick, slow

I’ve never learned to dance properly despite a number of valiant attempts (usually at the behest of partners) so I can promise you the title I’ve used for this particular piece has absolutely nothing to do with the ballroom. Apologies to any who were expecting me to regale you with exploits of Ruth donning sequinned frocks and learning to tango or foxtrot.

The words are intended to reflect the pace of change in recent weeks and months , which is perhaps something of a paradox as ballroom dancing – when done properly – is as smooth and a co-ordinated activity as you’re likely to encounter, what with all the variations in tempi, steps and twiddly-bits connected seamlessly in one flowing movement. Provided that the participants know what they’re doing, of course.

Regular readers may recall the last two posts hinted at having made significant progress, but then I went and left you all dangling in mid-air, so sorry about that. I’ve realised it’s been a while since my last post, too. Goodness, there’s even been time for a General Election.

Back at the start of May you’ll recall my first GIS appointment had left me full of hope, confidence and energy to actually start taking some serious steps towards full-time transition – not that steps thus far have been anything less than serious, but I’m sure you know what I mean. Despite being told to expect a further three months to see a consultant, then three more for an appointment with the  endocrinologist – hence the slow, slow bit – within a week of being officially in the GIS system I took the plunge and start the ball rolling – however gently – at work. Far quicker than I’d expected, but I was surfing a wave of positivity and it just seemed the right thing to do.

If I’ve learned anything since this journey began, it’s that everyone’s experience is different. One size definitely doesn’t fit all when it comes to transition or identity expression, and I’d say that’s especially true when it comes to transition in the workplace. Despite the best efforts and excellent resources that organisations such as GIRES place at our disposal, each situation will be different. At one extreme I know there are a few who approach their employers with a list of demands, waving the Equality Act 2010 in their manager’s face and expecting instant compliance, erasure of any record of Bob on all systems and records and woe betide anyone who accidentally misgenders them. Most I suspect are a bit more circumspect and collaborative.

Ruth’s annual appraisal, 2017…

It just so happened that my annual workplace appraisal was scheduled for the week following the GIS appointment. Over the years and in the various organisations I’ve worked with, I’ve had good, bad and indifferent experiences of the appraisal process. In my time I’ve put in hours of preparation, kicked off when I’ve disagreed with what’s been said but as the years have passed I’ve become more philosophical, and simply learned to regard appraisals as a necessary evil of being employed and receiving a salary. If nothing else, on the positive side appraisals are a focal point where manager and team member can be honest with one another, confidentially – and hopefully safely – at least once a year.

My appraisal with Penny – my line manager – was unremarkable, though not in any negative way. We followed the process, and after discussions about achievements, positive characteristics and the euphemistically-named ‘development areas’, we came to a section towards the end entitled ‘health & well-being’ – presumably there to make sure that the process hasn’t reduced the appraisee to a gibbering wreck by then. Seriously, it’s good it’s there if only as a prompt to a discussion – I’ve encountered far too many managers in my time who are utterly insensitive to how their or others’ demands can sometimes affect their team members’ health – equally how events in home or personal lives might be impacting on their workplace performance . Anyway, Penny broached the subject and gently asked if there was anything I wanted to share with her. “Well,” I replied earnestly, “there is something you need to know about me. You know that clinic appointment that was in my diary last week? Well it’s like this…”

Penny later admitted that she thought I was going to tell her that I’d been diagnosed with a serious illness, and was relieved when my news was merely that I was transgender. She wasn’t fazed in the slightest, and listened to what I had to say carefully and caringly. As it transpired, a teenage member of her extended family had, not so long ago, transitioned from female to male and the whole family are totally fine about it so gender dysphoria wasn’t unknown to her, although she admitted there was a lot she didn’t know and promised to go away and read up about it so that she could make sure I got all the support I needed.

I explained that transitioning full-time was something that wasn’t likely to happen in the next few weeks, worried that Penny might be thinking that Ruth would be walking through the door on Monday morning, although it will happen within the next six months if all goes to plan. We both agreed there was quite a bit of planning needed to make the experience as positive and supportive as possible for me and all concerned, but that I was in the driving seat and workplace transition would happen at my pace. I agreed I’d no problem with Penny sharing my news with our Head of Department and the other senior manager on our team, plus of course Human Resources would need to know, but that for now my intended transition would remain confidential until I chose to break the news. Finally, I offered to send Penny a link to the GIRES website, and that I’d have a go at drafting a Memorandum of Understanding as per their suggested approach. So far, so good.

News of Ruth’s intended transition reaches senior management…

The following morning it got even better. Penny having had the conversation with her, Head of Department Kay popped her head round my office door and asked if she could have a quick word. Closing the door, her face lit up and she seemed quite giddy telling me she’d heard my news, and that she was thrilled to bits for me. “I just wanted you to know you’re in safe hands and that we’ll do everything we can to help. I’m determined that we’ll make a success of this,” she added, sounding a bit like a certain politician. We then had a good long chat as I brought Kay up to speed on my journey so far. She said that it was fantastic news for the department, would be great for our profile in the organisation and force certain people in the team who ‘talked the talk’ about diversity to ‘walk the walk’, or words to that effect. I knew exactly what she meant by that. Most of the people I work with are very laid-back and open-minded but there’s one individual in particular who’s a huge advocate of equality and diversity in the workplace… provided it’s to do with their particular protected characteristic. It’ll be quite interesting to see how they react to me once I’m fully ‘out’ and realise that E&D isn’t a game of top trumps. Other than that person, I can’t honestly see anyone else being anything less than supportive.

Kay asked me about my next steps and reiterated what Penny had said that everything would move at my pace, and that I only had to ask for support if I needed it. Kay even asked if I wanted to begin coming into work presenting as Ruth immediately if it’d help. I thanked her for the offer, but gently explained that it wasn’t quite as straightforward as that, and one or two things needed to happen first, both outside the organisation and internally – pointing to Bob’s ID badge – but I have to give her full marks for enthusiasm. As she left, she beamed again and said, “I’d give you a great big hug now, if I wasn’t your boss!” Aw, bless!

Then nothing much happened for a while. Not through anyone’s lack of interest or enthusiasm, though – after all, we’d agreed the ball was very much in my court – but simply because there was no real hurry. My ‘coming out’ had been a signal of intent as much as anything. I’d explained about the expected timeframe for the GIS and that I’d prefer to have sound, well-thought-through plans in place rather than rushing at things and getting them wrong. But nor had anyone forgotten about me – Penny had diligently read the material I’d sent her from the GIRES website and tried to get hold of the right person in HR (who was proving a bit elusive), and I’d had a go at drafting a Memorandum of Understanding in line with recommended best practice. As I worked through the items one by one, it occurred to me I was probably having a relatively easy time of it compared to many others in the same situation. The biggest issue seems to be one of communication – who to tell, how and when. Or put another way, who needs to be told upfront and who can be allowed to discover Bob’s demise and Ruth’s ascendancy organically. I work for a large organisation, and as a relatively small cog in a very big machine I’m not expecting (nor would I want) to merit a headline in the weekly staff bulletin. Also I realise it’s not practical for me to tell everyone myself. That’s fine for my immediate team and those with whom I have regular working relationships, but impractical for many with whom I deal only occasionally. I’m still working it all through even now and it will require a joint effort from me and my managers, but the overarching principle already agreed is that nothing goes out without my input or agreement.

I’m also very fortunate in that the organisation I work for is very hot on equality, diversity and inclusion generally. Transgender awareness sessions are already a regular feature of the training calendar and the people I work with are a healthy balance of male and female, gay and straight – so I couldn’t really be in a better place. I suspect that workplace transition would be a very different experience were I to work in a traditionally male-dominated environment. There are no issues with uniforms (for me, anyway) and most ‘facilities’ are unisex in the building where I work.

Penny did finally manage to make contact with our HR representative, who suggested that Penny and I sit down and try and work through some kind of outline plan (which we’ve now done) before the three of us sat down together to make sure that all legal and procedural boxes were ticked, and that nothing had been overlooked so that everything’s ready and in place for when I finally give the go-ahead and actual dates.

Since the famous (notorious?) Eastbourne weekend in 2014 I’ve always been aware that – whether they admit it or not – most people outside our community have their own preconception of what a trans* woman looks like, depending on their particular life experience. Whilst there’s room for everyone, the transgender spectrum is broad and encompasses many different manifestations. Now perhaps it’s my own prejudices showing, but I wanted to reassure Penny that I wasn’t going to turn up for work on Day One in fishnets, 6” heels and a PVC mini-skirt. For my own personal reasons I’ve remained rather camera-shy throughout this process so don’t actually possess a decent photo of myself that I’m happy to show others. So, in a moment of rashness – or perhaps sensibly – I tentatively suggested that the aforementioned meeting might take place off-site, perhaps in a cafe in town so that the two of them could meet Ruth properly and see face-to-face exactly what they were getting. I could tell straight away my suggestion was well-received. The beaming smile that immediately spread across Penny’s face said everything, and I rather suspect I’d answered a question she’d been dying to ask for ages. I have to say I’m rather looking forward to that meeting.

But it won’t happen just yet awhile. As we’re entering the holiday season, co-ordinating diaries starts to become that bit more difficult so that particular encounter could still be some weeks away. Like the title of this post says…

So that pretty much brings me up to date. My journey of late seems to have been characterised by short but intense bursts of progress, followed by long periods of inactivity – admittedly some of it self-inflicted, but delays nonetheless. What’s beyond question however is that I have neither doubts nor regrets and that I’m definitely heading in only one direction. Perhaps that’s always been the story of my life…

Thanks for reading – more soon.

Alias Smith or Jones

I’d better warn you in advance. This is one of my occasional ‘thinking aloud’ posts, and so is likely to ramble all over the place before helping me to reach some kind of conclusion. Hopefully.

At some point in the not too distant future I’ll be changing my name legally. On the face of it, it’s a foregone conclusion – I’m Ruth, so all I need to do is get rid of the Bob, right? For most people, I imagine that’s quite a straightforward decision: Bob Smith becomes Ruth Smith, end of. As I explain elsewhere on this blog, my parents made no secret of the fact that Ruth would have been my given name right from the beginning, had Mother Nature not been distracted for a crucial moment when dishing out the chromosomes all those years ago. I even have a middle name in mind that I’m guessing would have also come my way, one that belonged to my great-grandmother, and which my mother always said she’d have preferred to have been given herself. I happen to like it, too… but I’m not telling you what that is just yet.

It’d actually be much easier if my surname really were Smith, because what complicates matters is the fact I was cursed with a rather unusual and distinctive surname – one that has been a source of comment, curiosity and occasional mirth from others all my life. Like the rest of my family, I’ve learned to shrug off the inquisitiveness and inappropriate comments but, as anyone with a non-standard surname will testify, it gets a bit wearing after a while. That’s even before we get on to misspellings – there are few who get it right first time, and even people I’ve known for donkey’s years still get it wrong. Sigh.

I realise I have a heaven-sent opportunity to leave all this behind. If I’m going to change my name through transition, then why not go the whole hog and fix my surname too? In fact, had I realised at an earlier age that changing one’s name was as easy as it appears to be, I’d have probably done it a long time ago.

If I do, it’ll once and for all put an end to a lifetime of constantly correcting mispronunciations and misspellings. My mother told the tale many years ago of explaining her new married name using Fingerspell to a hearing-impaired friend, almost caused a falling out between the two of them as the friend thought my mother was taking the rise out of her. Personally, I’ve lost count of the times I’ve had to respond to well-intentioned comments on the lines of, “Oh, that’s an unusual name, where does it come from?” Yes it is – and no, I haven’t a fecking clue.

Myleene-Klass-326515

OK, maybe not quite that bad…

So I have an alternative surname in mind. Not just some random creation, but one which has existed previously in my family and while still distinctive, doesn’t raise eyebrows or  questions about its origin, and can really only be spelled one way. Let’s call it Jones. Thus it solves a life-long problem in more ways than one. Also – in theory at least – Bob Smith would effectively disappear forever as I become Ruth Jones.

I stand to be corrected, but my understanding is that in UK law anyone who transitions has the right to be able to sever links with their past if they wish. I believe that’s the whole point of the Gender Recognition Certificate and associated equality rights. If we want, effectively we get the chance to wipe the slate clean, to the extent that an employer or any other organisation can be deemed to be acting illegally if they wilfully reveal a person’s transgender history to anyone who doesn’t need to know, for example through shoddy procedures or record-keeping. I have to say I’m not sure how that actually works in practice – for example what happens with employment references, security and credit checks etc. – but that’s the theory at least; future anonymity and protection .

But that then raises the question of how wise it would be to try and do some kind of disappearing act. I’ll admit that a fresh start has its appeal, and means that I’d be able to leave behind all the people and connections that have no place in my life anymore, and who don’t know about my transition. But I can’t help thinking it might create more problems than it solves, because despite the obvious appeal to the contrary, I can see disadvantages to severing all links with the past – the most significant being whether I’m actually being true to myself in doing so, or simply hiding? If I were to keep my existing surname, there’d be continuity but at the cost of more people knowing – possibly including some I might think needn’t know – that I’m transitioning, as it wouldn’t take a genius to make the connection. I guess it’d also provide some continuity professionally, rather than colleagues and clients thinking Bob has left the building and been replaced by a new girl.

I imagine most others in my situation keep their surname – famously, women such as Stephanie Hirst and Rebecca Root have done so, plus other less well-known friends– but maybe they’re all happier with theirs than I am mine – and their past too. I’ve certainly no intention of trying to deny or forget what’s gone before.

One topic that comes up in the blogosphere and forums from time to time that may be relevant here is how we feel regarding the Bob Years. I know there are some who feel so strongly about their identity that they treat that earlier part of their life as if it never happened. They seem to literately hate Bob and everything he stood for, and want to leave him behind. I’m not sure if that’s ever going to be possible without simultaneously moving home, changing job and severing all contact with friends and family – including not telling anyone your new name or whereabouts, but I dare say people do it, even though it would be akin to how I imagine a witness protection scheme might be.

Personally, while I wish there hadn’t been quite so many of them, I don’t look back on the Bob Years with any particular bitterness. There are plenty of good memories, lots of love and friendship and wonderful people I don’t want to leave behind. People who know all about my journey – or if they don’t already, soon will – aren’t really bothered whether it’s Bob or Ruth who’s their friend and are happy to support any decisions I may make. As we occasionally need to remind people, transition doesn’t involve a personality transplant; we’re still the same person, only happier.

hr dilemmaSo given I’ve no desire to transition anonymously, is there any point to my dilemma? Would a wholesale change of name make the future easier, or just add another layer of complication? There’s no necessity, so any decision would be purely cosmetic. Yet as I roll my likely future name in full over and over in my mind, it feels good, has a resonance and rhythm that I’ve not had before. I can say it out loud with confidence, something I’ve never been able to do. Bob has always felt rather apologetic and self-conscious about his name when forced to say it out loud, in the same way he’s never really liked looking in the mirror – but that’s all changed now.

It seems a long time ago now, but I have a clear ‘landmark’ memory of the very first time I had my hair fixed properly, looking in the mirror and actually liking who I saw looking back. It was a revelation that I’ve never forgotten. Similarly, I’ve tried saying both alternatives for my new name out loud and whilst the first option is palatable, the complete change involving a different surname not only sounds better, but also feels utterly natural. I can’t help thinking this is how it probably is for most people with uncomplicated surnames matched with well-thought-out first names throughout their life – except of course that they probably never notice.

So if a complete change of name feels inexplicably right and lightens my heart in the same way as the reflection of the new me in the mirror, it’s probably a no-brainer. And if my choice confuses others, complicates systems and processes etc., then that’s someone else’s problem, not mine.

Isn’t it?

Thanks for reading – more about recent progress next time.

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. Alison 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. Alison 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 Alison 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 Alison 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, Alison 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 Alison 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, Alison was able to dispel most remaining concerns about being ‘trans enough’ or sufficiently deserving of support. Seemingly these are very common doubts, and she 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.