I’ve been thinking long and hard about posting on this subject, for reasons that I hope will become apparent. Even as I’m writing I’m not sure whether to publish, so if you’re reading this then you’ll know I’ve taken a deep breath and decided to go with it.
A chance conversation recently shed light on something that I’ve actually been keeping in a dark corner, and wasn’t really aware to what extent until recently. As regular readers will know, the biggest remaining obstacle in my path to full-time living is The Conversation with my Number One Son (N1S) and, I’ve assumed, his mother – let’s call her Gayle. And I’m struggling. Still. Each time I contemplate the how and the where and the when, my mind begins turning a series of cartwheels as I consider all the possible permutations of what could go wrong. Until recently I’d always assumed the best way of going about things was to tell Gayle first as N1S’s primary carer, so that she’s there to support him if he struggles to process the news – but then I can’t predict her reaction. What if her response is that I shouldn’t tell him, or she thinks I shouldn’t even be transitioning at all until he’s older? I’ve no idea what her level of knowledge is about gender dysphoria, so for all I know she might think it’s a lifestyle choice, and that I can just say, “Oh all right then, I won’t bother if it upsets you.” What if she says she wants to tell N1S herself, and thus put her own spin on the situation, or guilt-tripping me, telling me how much I’m damaging N1S’s well-being and making him a target at school if his friends find out? What if, what if, what if… It’s been doing my head in for months, and I’m very much aware this isn’t the first time I’ve written about it.
But I’m no longer sure that telling Gayle first is actually the right way of going about this – if indeed there ever is a right way. Whilst N1S’s maturity and wisdom never ceases to amaze me, he’s also very good at hiding his feelings and being selective about what he shares if he’s in a certain kind of mood. I’m fairly sure this comes from his mother – either genetically or because I suspect she’s brought him up not to talk to me about what goes on within their four walls, on the basis that it’s none of my business and that I don’t need to know about that side of his life.
Anyway, back to the conversation I mentioned at the start of this post. Recently, I was at a family gathering hosted by my cousin Daniel that, out of necessity, I’d had to attend as Bob. Daniel’s known about my dysphoria for ages, and he and his side of the family are totally cool about it and 100% supportive. Despite a crowded house we managed to grab 10 minutes to catch up in the kitchen away from everyone else on the pretext of making everyone a cuppa. Daniel’s been through a fairly acrimonious separation from his wife over the last year or two, and was telling me how his ex tends to use their two kids as a way of guilt-tripping him into agreeing to all sorts of things – usually to do with childcare when she needs it or financial matters. “If you really cared for our children you’d… [fill in the blank].” Anyone who’s been there knows exactly what I mean.
Daniel explained that for a while her guilt-trip tactic succeeded every time, before one day he had the proverbial light-bulb moment. He realised that, actually, her approval or otherwise of him or what he did was irrelevant. His priority was building a new relationship with his kids for the time they spent with him, and that he didn’t need his ex’s consent to do that. Veiled or implied threats over restricting access, or insinuations that he risked impoverishing their children if he didn’t agree to every financial demand no longer cut any ice. He’s fulfilling – in fact exceeding – all obligations and has created a warm and loving home for his kids for when they spend time with him. They themselves have got their heads around the separation now, so what was the worst that she could do?
As I listened to Daniel, the realisation dawned that Gayle has been doing exactly the same with me for more years than I care to admit. She knows I hate any kind of conflict and that I’ll generally avoid unpleasantness at all costs, so in the interests of maintaining as harmonious a relationship as possible between the two of us for the sake of N1S, I usually find myself agreeing to pretty much all demands or requests that are made of me. Following the conversation with Daniel the awful truth dawned that she still has an unhealthy hold on me after all these years, and that’s more painful to admit than many might think.
Many years have passed since Gayle and I were an item – and we weren’t an item for very long, just a little over a year in fact. Yet it was the most disastrous and damaging time of my life, and my self-esteem, self-confidence and mental health were in tatters by the time I found the courage to walk away. I don’t intend to go into details, let’s just say I recognise much of what’s described here. Thankfully most of the wounds have healed now, but even now a few remain and it’s still painful to admit it was an emotionally abusive relationship. I didn’t recognise it as such at the time, and for a long time tried to justify her behaviour, that it must have been some failing in me that led her to it, or that she was ill and needed help… but I’ve since realised that’s exactly what victims tend to do.
Despite everything, Gayle and I have managed to remain reasonably civil for N1S’s sake, yet if I’m honest I still feel intimidated by her. Her disapproving looks chill me to the bone, and I suspect she knows it. I hate admitting that she still has that kind of hold over me, but that’s the legacy of such relationships. Abuse is damaging enough but even once the victim has found the courage to walk away, when children are involved we’re still forced to meet the perpetrator of our misery every week or so while putting on a brave face for the sake of the kids. Thankfully, the occasions on which I’m openly criticised or guilt-tripped are few these days, but it still happens occasionally and stirs painful memories when it does.
So, what does all this mean for my transition plans and coming-out conversation? First and foremost, I’ve realised that telling Gayle first would be tantamount to seeking her approval which, as I hope you’ll now understand, feels wrong in so many ways. It may well be that she turns out to be supportive – if she does, then that’s a bonus, but the most important person in this is N1S.
Call this my #metoo moment if you like. As many have courageously pointed out in recent weeks, whatever form abuse takes, ultimately it’s about power and control, and I refuse to let Gayle exercise that power over me any longer. The truth is that my transition is none of her business. Clearly she needs to be aware, but what she thinks no longer has anything to do with me or my life. She may be fine about it – supportive even – or could see it as yet another of my many failings. I have to hang on with grim determination to the thought that whatever she thinks, it doesn’t matter anymore.
Of course, none of this makes the impending conversation with N1S any the easier. The reality remains that he’s closer to his mother than to me and thus more likely to open up to her, plus of course he lives with her most of the week and has more opportunity to confide in her than me over matters that are worrying him. Yet on the other hand, when he does open up to me, there’s not a more loving, caring, diversity-aware or inclusive child on this planet – and that gives me confidence and reassurance that he’s going to be OK.
I’ve said all along the right moment will come, and that I’ll recognise it when it does. I think for those of us with children, it has to be the hardest coming-out conversation of all. I’ve friends who’ve experienced reactions at both ends of the spectrum, so we can never know until that moment comes. By coincidence, this article was in The Guardian last weekend. So much resonates with me and where I am right now, but in particular that the writer believes the most difficult task has been left until last, but for the very best of reasons.
I don’t know whether my conversation will be next week, next month or next year. The GIS has said there’s no pressure, that it doesn’t affect my care plan and it’s OK to just take my time. But it’s starting to weigh heavily and I need to get it sorted sooner rather than later.
Whenever it is, please wish me luck.
Thanks for reading.