The Thing In The Mirror

Once in a while, I look in the mirror and I don’t see myself. I see something that looks like I do, but it isn’t me. It’s a random occurrence. I have no warning or triggering event. I’ll just use the mirror to shave what little facial hair is left or do my make up and I won’t see a person looking back. I see a collection of planes, shapes and surfaces that should be me, but isn’t.

This isn’t me seeing a boy in the mirror. That’s something I’ve had described to me by others. I don’t see a boy. It’s also not a point of me seeing something I’m not used to. I do get that feeling, that’s different. Euphoric. It’s just a thing that isn’t me. Not a human being; it’s like a spiritual dissociation. And when it happens I just fall apart into a dysphoric mess.

I won a genetic lottery. My face was quite feminine even before hormones. Now, the brow is heavy and the eyes are hooded but the features many want surgery to correct aren’t there. There are things I could do. I could raise my brow and make my nose smaller, but I don’t have to. I want to do my nose but I probably won’t; it’s one of those things I list as a hypothetical change. If someone asks me what I would do if I could do anything without consequences or expense, my nose is what I mention. I know I look good.

I also have the hair and make up skills to make myself look better. But it doesn’t matter. Just once in a while, I’m dressing up that thing. I do it because even if I don’t see me, I understand that’s the face I wear. That’s the most horrible thing about it: I have to take my time and do the thing’s face. Make the thing look OK. Smile, it helps. Or they tell me it helps. It doesn’t help.

Where do I go? Why am I not there? Truth is, I don’t know. I just suffer and occasionally look in a mirror throughout the day in the hopes that the thing is gone. Take selfies. I do let people know that it’s happening because all the emotional turmoil that comes with it is difficult to bear alone.

I sometimes wonder why I bothered to do all this if I still look in the mirror and see the thing. Part of my relief in transitioning was that I don’t see it as often. Occasionally as opposed to all the time. The feeling of disgust is gone, even when I do see it. I do hate myself when it’s there, but the thought that it’s somehow my own flaw is gone.

I first remember seeing the thing in the mirror when I was very young. Either almost four or just turned four, at my mum’s house in New Hampshire. There was a hall mirror; one of the few I could see myself in on account of my height. I remember hating what I saw, just the visceral wrongness of it. I would stare into that mirror and sing a song into it. A nonsense song, one I would be later teased about by my family. They meant well, but it was a coping mechanism. I couldn’t deal with what I saw so I tried to disarm it with a silly little song. It upsets me to think about the song now.

I avoided images of myself. Pictures, mirrors, reflections of any kind. I would get uncomfortable with mirrored walls and avoid places that had them or make sure I was situated so I didn’t see them. I didn’t shave because it meant seeing my face. I didn’t want my hair cut ’cause it meant facing a mirror. And I just hated having short hair; it made the thing more obvious.

When I came to England, I did start shaving. I still hated it but I decided it was preferable to having a lot of hair on my face. My ex was glad of it. I was still unhappy about photos and even was relieved when my ex said she didn’t want wedding photos. We did have them anyway and I put up with it.

Banishing the thing was a huge burst of euphoria for me. I felt free and I enjoyed playing with make up. Making myself look good – my self – was new. It still is. And yet it still lurks around and emerges every few weeks. I don’t know if I’ll ever be totally free of it.

It wasn’t a reason for me to transition, but it was affirming when I could look in the mirror and see me. I’d never seen me. Always this thing that wasn’t a person. And while it does make me question my transition when I see it again, I realise that banishing it to the corner it’s gone is such a vast improvement that I know this is right.

It might always be there, but I’ve managed find a cage for it. I can only hope the cage gets stronger; maybe some day it will go somewhere else and torment me no longer.

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Hopes and Fears

“Do you ever feel scared about the changes that your body is going through?” asked an acquaintance of mine this morning.

“Of course,” was my immediate response. I think most girls are afraid when they develop. Or they’re at least apprehensive. Puberty, it’s a right mess and we’re landed in it with only a sketchy notion that it’s going on.

Fear is a daily experience. Fear and doubt. I took the hormones not knowing what would happen or how I would be – how I would change. But I had to. I was in a bad place; I wanted to die. It was change or die. I chose to live. I didn’t have a choice when hormones ruined my body, they just did that on their own. All I knew was whatever I ended up with, it would be better than what I had then.

In previous articles, I’ve characterised transitioning as movement into the unknown. I had no concept of what I wanted. Not really. I just knew I wasn’t what everyone told me I was. It messes with your head.

Last night, a friend that only knew me and my ex as a set before things went tits up – literally – turned around and told me I was ‘physically male.’ He’s a pharmacist with a lot of medical training; it’s how he’s conditioned to think by his profession. I get it. ‘Male’ and ‘female’ are biological as well as social terms. Wires can easily cross.

The thing that hurt me about the comment was not the matter-of-fact truth of it: biologically I had that ‘male’ label. Socially and psychologically I did not. He made that separation, but it hurt anyway. It brought back the lifetime I was trying to forget: that experience of being told I was a thing I was not.

These days my greatest fear is that my friends and family will never really see a woman when they look at me. That their knowing I’m transgender will colour their unconscious bias and I will be allowed the trappings but not the belonging. Like a game they let me play along with knowing that I will eventually go away and leave them so they can relax. I want to escape that biological label and it frightens me to consider that I might not.

It’s an unreasonable fear, but it’s there. And yes, I’m afraid of how my body is changing. It’s magical, wonderful, empowering, and terrifying. But that’s not what really grips me. It’s the web of assumption that drives my fear. The society that looks on, judges, and decides what treatment we deserve. Gender isn’t just assigned at birth. It’s assigned every time anyone looks at us and makes a judgement. Gender assignment starts at birth (actually before). It never stops.

So people ask me if I fear. Yes. People ask me if I fear the changes in my body. And yes, I do. I fear the changes in people more. I fear duplicity and I fear that I’ll never live the mistake the doctor made down. My past can transition with me; I already think of myself as I am currently known in my past. But people won’t necessarily do it the way I have or relate it in a way I can listen to. Part of seeing me as a woman is also an understanding that I always was a girl; to dismiss the misunderstanding and adopt the appropriate terminology. Use the right name, even if it wasn’t the name they used when they spoke to me at the time.

Some might feel that what I suggest is a revisionist approach to history. My second oldest friend actually accused me of that, at first. A year ago, when I was just getting to grips with the changes myself. I didn’t know how to answer the question of how I should be talked about in the past except I knew I didn’t want to be known by my old name regardless. My mum still really struggles with this notion that she is somehow rewriting history. That feeling that my past was stuck in this category that nobody could talk about is a real fear.

My friend, at least, made it clear that she has actually made at least some of that transition and now thinks of the stuff we did together as what ‘me and Clara’ did. That was amazing news. Not what I expected to hear. I had one or two happy tears; it was one of the most affirming things anyone has said to me.

Moving forward can’t be without fear. Fear of change, fear of rejection. Fear that you’re wrong – I was wrong about a great many things. I continue because I must. Because standing still, continuing as I was, was killing me. It was fear that set me on this course: fear of what I might do to myself. I became more afraid of myself than I was of everything else. I don’t look back because of that same fear.

Sharing my fears with my friends and family taught me that the people who stay with us as we change will change with us. I am afraid, but I know I don’t have to be. I won’t always be.

Resignation

I wish I didn’t hope. The hopeless have resignation on their side: that ability to just accept and let it go, no matter how horrible. There are things about myself, my body, that I can’t let go because there is hope they can be better. Things that I wish I could because there is no action to fix or improve them but to wait. In that situation, resignation is far preferable to hope.

My hair seems to be growing back. Very slowly. Where before there was just smooth nothing, there is now dark, fine, useless hair that doesn’t really grow so much as frizz. It may or may not strengthen into hair. This is a good thing: it means my HRT is reversing my hair loss, maybe. But I don’t know if that’s what it is, and I won’t know until it’s self evident. I can’t do anything to speed it up or test it. I just have to stay the course and see.

Until I checked my head a couple of weeks ago, I was resigned to wearing wigs the rest of my life, or at least until I had a hair transplant. If the hair transplant was a viable option for me, and that’s not a known thing. I was able to deal with my hatred of myself with my hair off and just accept my horrible head for what it was.

I don’t know why I checked my head. I just did. I was letting my hair dry after a shower and just looked in the mirror, expecting that twinge of disgust I get on the rare instances where I catch even a partial reflection of myself with my hair off. I was surprised to find I didn’t feel that disgust, even if I was unhappy to look.

Where I was used to just seeing voids on my head, I saw colour. I ran my hand over it and found it wasn’t growing anything like as quickly as my other hair, it was getting longer and I had colour over the patches rather than empty scalp. I nearly cried.

The idea that I might actually just have my hair come back was not a thing I considered. I knew there would be regrowth but I had no illusions of a recovery – and even now, it won’t recover to what it was. But it looks like I may actually end up with enough hair to cover my head. Maybe. It’s been eleven months on HRT to get colour as opposed to blank scalp so who knows.

But what I’ve discovered in the following days is that hopeful uncertainty is so much worse than cold resignation. My mind is flooded with doubt: am I lying to myself? My fiancée tells me there’s definitely more than there was so I don’t think I’m imagining things.

So what can I do? Nothing. Actually, I’m working myself back into a state of resignation. I can’t allow myself hope; it’s driving me mad. I need to just accept and move on. The constant questioning or exploration of what if is too hard on me. The overdrive is crushing and it threatens to drain me. I can’t let that happen. I have stuff to do! Work, friends, volunteering… I just can’t stop even if I wanted to, and I don’t.

But I can’t quite dismiss this. I’ve been quietly hoping against hope this whole time. I want my hair. Cutting it off at uni was a huge mistake, one I regretted immediately and it signaled the large scale loss of my hair. I did it for a girlfriend. She was shooting a film for a class and couldn’t find an actor. Said she really wanted the character to have short hair.

So I did. I hated it. I never grew it back though. I saw the thinning and figured that was it; it cut me to the core but at that moment I knew it was too late for me. I was a woman that couldn’t be, and my body gave me an unequivocal signal that I was stuck as I was: my hair was going and I could do nothing to stop it. My femininity was a dying dream. May as well bury it. Hope died that year.

The only thing that drew me back out was the cold resignation that I had to die. Years later, in a rallying phase of an abusive relationship. With no other outlet for myself. I wanted to die. I was planning it; I wanted a good contingency in case I woke up after the attempt. I had no hope that I could really pass without hair. Liverpool Bex, who was pivotal in my coming out, assured me wigs were the way forward and they looked great. I only half believed her but I didn’t see any other choice so I took that next step. I had to.

Hope did not get me this far. Certainty has. The understanding that I had no choice, that I could do it, and that I had support. Resignation and bleak certainty. That is what helped. That’s what drove my decisions and that’s why I pursued my goal relentlessly. I had no choice: it was transition or die.

And now I find myself unable to do anything but sit and hope. There is no way forward. The drugs will simply do what they do; I am a passenger for this one. And it does sound trite that I’ve had a good result but all I can do is moan. But actually, in a way, I wish I hadn’t. If I hadn’t had this good result, I could remain detached from the issue and move forward.

Potential

A long conversation with a friend got me writing a bit of fiction. I was inspired by the work of Nail Gaiman. I thought about how he wrote, what it was I liked about it. I tried to do something similar: magical. Understated, matter of fact. Taking the fantastic and making it live in the real world.

On the whole, I think I succeeded. I’ve had great feedback from people and I’m considering trying another story just to see how it goes. The first attempt is far from perfect. There are bits I want to rework, moments that could be told better. I just want to get away from it; let it cook in my mind. I’ll get back to it at some point.

I have no idea where my writing is going to take me. Probably nowhere. I want to share stories. I’ve been sharing stories through D&D for most of my life and this is a new way to do what I’ve always done. I enjoyed writing it and I want people to read it. That’s really as far as it goes.

While the feedback is overwhelmingly positive – with a couple of people just reacting with a big, fat ‘huh?’ – it’s occasionally come alongside comments that I should just write. That’s lovely, but the companion comment is that I’m wasting myself. I’ve had this comment from a few people, and I find it incredibly discouraging.

Thinking about it, the thing I’ve most wanted to be (since I decided I wanted children) is a stay at home mum. Even before that, I’ve wanted to make something beyond myself. I wanted to make people’s lives better either through art or friendship – just make the world a better place for those I loved. And I understand that most of the duties of a stay at home mum is shit work, but that’s not the point: I want to make life nice for people I love. I’ll do shit work if that’s what I get for it.

I love writing, but I also love theatre. I love teaching too. And actually I’ve found I love bar work too. I’ve always done things I love and managed to get by; I don’t see this as a waste. Maybe bar work isn’t very glamorous or demanding. I’ll give it that, but I’m enjoying where I am. It’s probably not forever but it’s done me a world of good. I can’t consider it a waste.

I never gave theatre a proper go. I should have. I fell into working at schools – sort of how I fell into working at the pub – and it stuck. I could figure out the tech again and go back, see how I’d do. Probably would work out fine. I never really tried psych, though I started and earned a higher ed diploma in it. I could keep going with it and make it a degree, see where that takes me. I could even go back and do teacher training. It’d be an adventure. I could write.

“Doesn’t live up to potential.” This phrase plagued me as a child, and how I sort of feel like that’s the general comment I get from the world around me now. I can do so much and I know it. But I’m also not able to do those things. I have skills, I have talent, and I have the means. But I don’t have the emotional and mental readiness or stability. I can’t handle it. I don’t have the ambition; I never have. I don’t want to fly high.

Maybe I’m just not good enough. Maybe I don’t have it in me. Some folks have a lot going for them but never seem to do much with it. Maybe that’s me.

You will never come up against a greater rival than your own potential, said an egotistical scientist in Star Trek: The Next Generation to a young Wesley Crusher. In the end, Crusher decided to hang out with a bunch of hippies and get stoned. You know, maybe he really did understand.

When everyone looks at you and sees how you might do more or differently, it creates a dissonance in the self. Gender dysphoria is a similar feeling, actually: it’s about expectation. I grew up with a set of inappropriate expectations that upset me. Now as I feel more able to express myself and I’m challenging myself in new ways, I’m being encouraged. And that’s great! But the notion that I’m somehow doing the wrong thing is hard to swallow.

In society, we have a strong message to use our talents somehow to either make money or somehow better ourselves, but really it’s about money. Careers. How we make our way through life. I think that’s where this concept of waste comes from. Maybe that’s why stay at home parents are seen as inferior somehow? Maybe that’s why some stay at home parents I know look at their lives an wish they could do some other work to ‘better their family’.

What seems to be forgotten is that it’s the work we do that isn’t for money that is often the most worthwhile. I would give so much to have the lives of my friends, yet some of them wish they were off doing some job or something. Maybe we can trade? I seem to have all this potential, yet the inability to do the one thing I want and they seem to have everything in life I ever wanted but desire something different.

So I write and I draw. I don’t sell it and I have no aspirations to sell it. Is this a waste?

One dear friend told me, after explaining some of my feelings about this, that the waste would be to not use or share what I create. That is a comfort. I may not be able to have the career I want, but I can still make the lives of those I love better by sharing my stories. Maybe in that way I can do what I always wanted.

If all that can be said of my tiny little life is that I enriched the lives of those I love, then I think I’ll have reached my full potential.

When Inclusion Hurts

I had my first serious dysphoric attack at work the other day. I’ve written before about my hair on several occasions, and it’s still the one major trigger I have. I manage my dysphoria by finding  a way forward and acting. If I feel like I can move forward even in a small way, it doesn’t bother me much more than your basic anxiety.

I have no way forward with my hair. Transplants are an attainable but challenging sum of money to save. I can’t currently save while my divorce is underway: I need to have nothing when they examine my finances. Transplants also require an assessment to determine how much it costs in the first place or whether it’s even viable – my HRT is slowly regenerating some of my hair, which puts off such an assessment until I know what there is to salvage. Good news for me, and it is a way forward but a slow, passive one that I don’t deal with particularly well.

I’ve moved very quickly. Identity documents are mostly done, I’m responding well to hormone therapy. Out to part time to full time in seven weeks. Voice trained in four months. Breast forms unnecessary by month nine. My transition rate has slowed by dint of the list dwindling; even my waistline is half way to the mark I need it to be for surgery. Hair removal is progressing and where I can’t save ’cause divorce that is going to continue. The list of things I can do is almost clear.

This time last year, that list is what kept me alive and experiencing some pleasure in life. Now, it’s not so necessary. I have other things to focus on and that’s probably a good thing but it’s yet another shift. How many changes, how many phases, do we adjust to in this? Different for everyone I suspect. As my transition slows, I notice that these attacks of dysphoria become less frequent but more severe.

I never learned how to plait stuff. I remember in school my classmates would often plait ribbon or string or hair while waiting for stuff. Sat in queues, eating lunch, etc. They would just pass time and I just never got it. I tried and was admonished by my peers because it was meant to be easy. I could just never quite manage and eventually I stopped trying. Now that I think of it, I had similar problems with rope skills and other kinds of weaving. It took me years before I finally got to where I could tie reasonable knots other than my shoelaces. My stepfather Richard would show me how to do friendship bracelets which was pure sorcery to me.

I felt left out. It’s a thing I wanted to do but wasn’t able to, and it was also a sort of girly activity I was able to join in with without being made a spectacle or seen as some kind of weirdo – I eventually embraced weirdness anyway but not that kind of weirdness. I couldn’t join in even though socially there was no barrier, for once.

So I find myself at work on a reasonably quiet Saturday with one of the ladies that works there and my fiancée. Playing with my fiancée’s hair. I idly have a go plaiting it an to my delight I do manage to plait her hair, but unevenly and a bit rubbish. Still, progress! And the lady I work with takes it upon herself to show me how to do it properly – a thing I resisted out if instinct, but I wanted to see. I’m not sure where that resistance came from, but something in my brain told me not to watch.

After showing where I went wrong and finishing the basic plait, she went on to a mermaid plait and I watched as the hair was woven this way and that. It was really fun. Relaxing. Upsetting. My mind wandered to my own hair. Damnit. As grateful as I was for being shown, it reminded me that I could never really join in. The thought cut me and I had to go. I made my apologies and retreated before anyone could see that I was crying.

It’s the feeling of exclusion that hurts. I can live with not having hair – with being in a wig for the rest of my life – except that it also means I can’t just let someone play with it. I want to join in. I want to have that simple pleasure of a friend playing with my hair in an idle moment; of my love stroking it to comfort me or simply for the sheer enjoyment of the contact. I can’t.

So I sobbed in the kitchen for I don’t know how long, aware I was working. Vaguely aware of the sounds coming from the bar just through the opening a few feet away. The noises got louder and I knew I had to get back to work. I pulled myself together and started fixing my eyes when my colleague came back and asked what she did so she could avoid it. Not what was wrong – I suspected at the time my fiancée just mentioned I was getting dysphoric, but I don’t think that actually happened.

She did nothing wrong. I wanted to see even if I had that tickle on the edge of my thoughts to not watch. I didn’t know this would happen, except for that small inkling. I did that thing teenagers do, “Oh yeah I figured that out just now!” when it was obvious I hadn’t ‘figured it out’. It was a response I was immediately ashamed of but I realise now it was a defense mechanism. I wanted to look, but I was afraid. I had good reason to be afraid, but I wanted to be included.

The experience proved I was surrounded by good people who, in the words of my colleague, ‘Cared, but didn’t mind.’ There were other words that stick out. Things about a long journey. That’s an interesting sentiment, one I haven’t been very accepting of, but if I can peg this dysphoric feeling back to when I was little then she’s right: very long indeed. As long as I can remember.

Acceptable Losses

I’ve written before, a loss where one is true to oneself is no loss. I put that to the test the other day. I took a stand over a word. A significant word that carries a lot of meaning, even if it’s a small thing. Period. It’s a word that means a lot of things but carries a singularly womanly context. I use it because I get them – not the bleeding, as I’ve said – and I use that word because it describes my condition but it also empowers me as a woman. I’ve used it for months.

This month I used it and came under fire. I was stunned, hurt. Invalidated. I’ve had a couple of days of crippling dysphoria for it.

I drew a line in the sand. I told the people in contact with me that I would continue to use the word period and if they didn’t like it then they could walk away – or they could argue and I would push them away. It’s a step I needed to take for myself; a boundary I need to get past my feelings of worthlessness. A stand I had to take because it was important to me, even if it wasn’t important to them. I had to stay true to myself, and this was the only way I knew.

It was an act of a wounded fighter. A desperate move of someone who had resolve but no energy to push on. I knew I had to fight, that this was important, but I didn’t have the energy to wade into the debate and reason. Plus, I have less and less faith over reasoning over the Internet. People blow hot air at each other and bury themselves in semantics. It’s a waste of time.

Taking ownership of the word ‘period’ is, for me, an important part of acceptance and validation as a woman. If trans women are somehow not allowed to use the most common term for menstruation or PMT/PMS, it excludes us as women in a fundamental way. I should be careful here because my brother polled his wife (both in America) and her perception was slightly different from the one I tend to observe here in the UK. So what a person means when they say ‘period’ in America might well not be the same thing. Something we all know. And laugh about.

To be fair, the dissenting voices have been far outweighed by those who read my blog or follow the story and find it absolutely silly that my use of the word is somehow not allowed in the minds of some. Anecdotally, society is largely on my side. At least the slice I associate with is, for the most part. Or they’re graceful enough to not worry about it and accept what it means, which is actually just as good. That’s what tolerance means: a respect for a person’s choices when they do no harm to others. They don’t have to like it or agree, but they do have to keep their mouths shut and tolerate it.

I want to join in and be embraced, but I’ll take tolerance if that’s what’s on offer. It’s a start. Most of the people I spoke with from the conflict earlier are fine and we resolved the issue, for now. One I did remove because she said a few other things in the past that made me question whether I really wanted to be that person’s friend. As an aside, Facebook is for actual friends for me. If I find someone isn’t an actual friend I just get rid – something that has been interpreted as hostile or something. But I digress.

Inevitably, some got upset with me and went of their own accord. That saddened me but I did say for them to walk away or I will push them, I didn’t want anyone to leave. I was (am) hormonal, exhausted and emotionally unable to engage in arguments right then. I needed to set up a wall and make the boundaries clear; to get out of crisis. Maybe later there can be a conversation but not then, not now. Persisting to fight was going to burn me out, but I couldn’t back down so that’s what I did.

It also cost me involvement in the burlesque group I was working with. That is very upsetting, and only parallel to what actually happened. But it was a result of my tact. Oh well. I can’t change people. Arguing on the Internet doesn’t change minds, it just polarises people. It creates bad feeling without solving any problems. That’s actually why I just deleted comments and removed people from my list. There was no point – they thought what they thought and it didn’t matter what I felt.

It’s sad to lose a creative outlet. It’s hard to watch people you worked with and respected walk away. It’s hard to cut people away and difficult to live with the hard choices we make. I did the only thing I felt I could; the only thing that I could see would allow me to stay true to myself. And I won.

A costly fight. I lost friends, a social group, possibly the respect of others. I feel very alone, but I promised I would use the word and accept the contempt. Period. I’m on my period. It’s nearly over, actually – only lasts three to five days and it’s day three. Saying so with that word is part of my identity. Part of what makes me who I am. And people showed me contempt, disbelief, rejection. I’m not happy to leave those people behind and cut away that outlet. I’m not proud of myself. I’m hurt. I’m tired.

But I was true to myself. I looked everyone in the face and told them no. No, this is important. No, this is me. I will not bend.

I fought and I won.

Rejection Is Inevitable

By my best reckoning, I had my first period in November 2016. I thought I was going insane. I didn’t bleed, of course, but my feelings ran riot. My moods would flip on a dime and I had no control over my thoughts. It scared me. It lasted about a week and then got better. A couple of melt downs as it happened but I was no worse for the wear.

Last week of the month. I’ve come to discover that I go a little bit insane and unstable the last week of every month. I never quite know how I will be. I’ve been suicidal one month, manically euphoric the next. After being reassured by my mum and a few friends, I just accepted them as normal.

And they felt normal. Natural even. Now I just know I’m gonna come on some time around the last week of the month and I sort of wait for it and see what happens. Apparently, this is normal for trans women on HRT and nobody really knows why. There are many accounts of it happening, and I have compared notes with many other transfeminine friends. For me it’s just emotional, but my estradiol dose is quite low. When my HRT becomes more aggressive, there is every possibility I will experience physical symptoms, too. But we don’t know what will happen.

So my periods happen and I sort of know when they will happen. And they happen quite reliably. Great. And naturally I bitch about it because that’s what women do. ‘Cause they’re a pain in the ass, even if we would feel really weird and even worried if they didn’t happen. They’re just part of how my body naturally works; a sign that I’m healthy.

So I do what so many girls do: post on facebook about it. Nothing graphic, just an emotive ‘woo periods’ type status. Feeling hormonal. This is still only a few months old for me, it’s momentous. I’ve done it before and usually get a few likes or commiserating comments like ‘hormones suck’ or whatever. Just stuff.

But this time I get an inquisitive friend wondering how that works without a womb. He’s autistic so a certain amount of tolerance is warranted and it’s clear he realised he was on thin ice from the start. And I tell him: it just does. Nobody knows why, it’s an unresearched medical mystery. But it happens and people get them. Trans women will also sync their cycles with the other women – trans or otherwise – they’re regularly with (another unresearched medical mystery).

I get the usual drivel: medically that doesn’t make sense (yes I know, I just said that). They’re not periods, they’re just hormone spikes (they bloody well are periods, thank you very much). Then another cis friend chimes in about how what I get is valid but my experience is lacking where I haven’t had the full uterus experience – insulting, invalidating and hurtful all in one sentence. It might escape the notice of some, but I would die to have the right body configuration. I nearly did, and I would take any risk to get what I can. I would have done anything to carry my daughter and if I had, she would be alive today.

So no, I don’t have a uterus. Thanks for reminding me. And I know I will never have that particular physical sensation – except the overwhelming evidence about how periods work on HRT says I will, so I’m not sure how that squares up. But that’s OK ’cause nobody does. There are a great many things I would love to have, to be. I am not and I lack them. I am doing my best.

Really, this experience taught me something: I will never be a woman to some people. Not really. I will never be able to bitch about my period to some women (or men) without being causally reminded that I am fundamentally inadequate. Always with a reminder that of course my experience is valid, except where it isn’t. Except where it falls short. Except where I am excluded.

It’s the worst kind of tolerance. The tolerance that embraces a person to a point then shuts them out. The sort of tolerance that isn’t at all, but disguises itself in a moral high ground that is absolutely despicable. Hate me if you want, exclude me if you must, but do not tell me that your hatred or exclusion is some twisted form of supportive inclusion. Your carelessness is equally unwelcome; it’s a poor excuse for casual prejudice.

And those people, who may read this, will hasten to list the reasons I’m wrong. I’ll tell you what else: I get to decide whether what is said is transphobic, not you. If you really want to make peace with me, then you will do so cap in hand, without defensive reasoning. Telling me how I’m wrong will pick a fight rather than end one.

And you know, I don’t need that in my life. I have fought too hard and come too far to be told this stuff. And I’m on my damn period so I’m not feeling especially level or forgiving. Confront me at your own peril.

Specific Moments

‘It’s a phase 🙂 then you’ll be just plastering your face in minutes with whatever’s available.’

Talking make up with a friend and she fires that bit of cynical wit at me. And she’s right that I take great care in my make up. Perhaps more than most? Probably not, but I’m fussy about what I use and I’m thoughtful in my application. It’s a passion for me that I discovered back in university but could never quite realise until I came out.

There are so many variables: occasion, what I’m wearing – particularly the colour – how long I intend for it to last, what the light quality of where I’m going is going to be. Facial modification. Mood. I am now in a place where I need to decide what I wear before I do my make up, but the main change in my every day look is lip colour and that’s easy to do after dressing. I still consider it though.

My reasons for using make up are many and complex. I’ve been trying to put it into words for a while now, but until that comment hit me, I didn’t quite have them. I wasn’t sure what my purpose in writing was, but I think this hits on something important.

For many trans women, make up is a survival tool. It’s a means for passing and a way to cover unwanted face hair shadow on the skin. My initial interest in make up stretches before that, but my need for it started in that basic place. The habits were formed when I still had most of a beard (I only had two laser treatments before properly presenting part time, three before going full time) and not covering it was a safety risk. I live in a reasonably diverse town but it only takes one person to clock me to get myself killed or worse; going out without make up on was simply not an option to start.

Good job I enjoyed it.

My earliest fascination with make up was quite young: I remember my mum was going out with my dad and she had some eye shadow on. Blue? A cool tone. She had lipstick on too and there must have been other stuff but that’s all I remember. I just remember being amazed at how it transformed the familiar image of my mum’s face. I was very young, not sure how old but older than four and younger than seven. It was a powerful thing to see, the transformation.

From there, I was mostly exposed through adverts, which didn’t impress me so much. Models all looked the same. There was no distinction, no contrast. I didn’t get to see the transformation, so my interest wasn’t piqued. I quite liked it when girls at school would do things like line my eyes. They got a kick out of it, I found it quite fun but I didn’t like being made a spectacle. Eventually I stopped playing along because being paraded around was upsetting. I didn’t want to be ‘the boy we made up.’ I wanted to play with make up with the girls.

In high school, I liked having my nails painted occasionally but I mostly avoided being made up because the goth look was what most of my friends were all over and it wasn’t me. I ended up embracing black clothes just ’cause they were nondescript, and the goal at that point was to act out but not stand out. I was bad at blending in.

By the end of uni my hair had well and truly started falling out and I gave up on it, but there was a class I just had to take: make up design. This was mostly oriented at face modification and effects, but there were assignments where subtlety was required. I don’t remember having so much fun at uni in a class, though there were plenty of highs working on various bits with friends elsewhere. That class was the high. I wish I had discovered it sooner. I remember saying so.

My make up enthusiasm was mostly restricted to helping my ex evaluate various choices – her style was pretty basic and unadventurous – and doing the odd demo with the children I worked with. The ensuing years fell into the black hole that much of my life did in that period. I honestly don’t know if there was anything interesting going on; I barely remember it.

When I came out, I was determined to do something fun with make up. I had to wear it anyway, I remember loving it, and I was going to make this thing happen. It was a form of expression that was denied me, mostly. That I discovered too late to try to make it a vocation; all my credits to that point were in lighting and sound. Or grunt work. And anyway, when I moved to England I ended up promptly leaving theatre for schools within a few months of getting permission to work, so I suppose you could say that I never gave it a proper go. My ex didn’t like the hours; wanted me free on weekends – you know, I only just thought of that.

Anyway make up. Perfect chance right? I told Jenni, Liverpool Bex’s friend that did make up, that I took a design course like 15 years before (slight exaggeration, it was more like 11 or 12 years before) so I kind of vaguely remembered stuff. I remember not needing a lot of help with it, in the end. I was told later that Jenni pulled Bex aside and asked if I was full of shit, saying I didn’t know what I was doing but clearly getting it.

I didn’t know, I just remembered and did what made sense. I was excited, passionate, and eager to recreate those mental paths. I played; it’s all about light! Where does the light fall, where does it bounce. How do you want it to? And that’s the pivotal thing: how do you want it to. There is no real every day answer to that question. Not for me (though I do have a thing I do every day that I then embellish). That’s where the art is.

So make up is not about being prettier, though it helps. Make up is about survival, but not for me anymore. It’s about sending messages to those around you. They see my face and they know what occasion I’m going to, what colours I’m wearing without looking. Make up lets a person know from my face everything they need to know. That the outfit, posture, and other trappings fit is part of the presentation; its very theatrical.

Make up can be about everyone every day, and sometimes that’s all it is for me: every day. But it can also be about specific people in specific moments. My reasons for buying make up, using it, playing with it, and then showing it off are focused on the specific. I could plaster on whatever’s available, but really at that point I wouldn’t bother with make up at all! It’d be a waste of time and money.

I am me in this moment, and I can transform my face to express that. What a wonderful gift.

Mental Health Days

I completed my third week without a day off to cope with my anxiety. Truly an accomplishment; hindsight tells me that hasn’t happened in well over ten years. I would take ‘mental health’ days off every couple of weeks for as long as I can remember, but I didn’t class it as anxiety.

I seem to have become more aware of my feelings and what they are. Maybe that’s a hormone thing? I would be lying if I said I didn’t have anxiety. My new job at the pub didn’t just magic that away. I wouldn’t say I don’t get stressed, either. I do. The pub is a lot like a classroom, by how my bosses run it: the bar is your bar. What you say goes and if people are behaving in a way you aren’t happy about, they can either do as you say or they can go.

I’ve spent my working life doing things I love but dreaded going to. I loved theatre – lived for it! I relished in the projects, the weird hours, the camaraderie. But I would wake up, tick through the things I needed to do, how much time I had to do them, when I had to be there and just die inside. I’d fold. There were days where I just couldn’t face starting the day. I have a love that endures, but as a job I couldn’t deal with it.

Education is the same. It’s a thing I love; a thing I have a true passion for. But like before I would wake up and calculate how many microaggressions I would get from children, how many direct encounters, how many unsolvable problems… it piled up in my head. I couldn’t, and I wouldn’t be able to go in. I would feel it build in my chest at the start of every weekend, at the beginning of every term.

The jobs I had at restaurants – I use the term loosely – were similarly fraught with that anxious build. I’d be fine, and fine, and fine, and then I’d tick overload and just phone in. So what makes this job different? I don’t know. Probably the people? But I loved the people at the school, the theatre, and even at my past food service jobs way back ago. The work itself is all right.  I like alcohol and I know how to talk about it (a skill that belies how little I actually know! Language is easy. Knowing is hard). You know, when I was 18 I absolutely adored ice cream and I scooped that with mostly no complaint… except I would phone in for my mental health. I’d rationalise it other ways but that’s what it was.

So this job. This gig that I grabbed because it was there, because a friend was going and said it was a good one. It’s not that different from the other gigs I’ve had in that it’s a thing I’m interested in, a thing I’m diving into knowing enough to talk myself into a corner but not enough to actually hold a real conversation about. A thing I’m learning quickly and enjoying the learning. It also uses a lot of the social management skills I learned working with children (it’s astounding how similar this is to working in a classroom).

I guess I feel empowered. Being trans is a nonissue. They don’t care. The regulars don’t care, I showed up in a shirt that read, ‘I survived testosterone poisoning,’ and the most I got was a compliment from one guy and this older dude saying it was deep. They either don’t know what it means or do and don’t care. I get all the sexism the other ladies that work there get (though one regular I seem to have totally intimidated without really trying). There’s smaller stuff like my taste in music and general quirkiness that just seems to be welcomed as an asset or just part of the experiences of those around me before I got there.

And then there’s just the fact that I’m actually in control of what’s going on and the people there mostly just let me lead. That’s relatively new. Theatre is a collaborative art so while I had a lot of autonomy in my remit, I was answerable to a whole bunch of strong minded people plus a director that pretty much had the say. That’s not a bad thing, it’s just a fact. The schools I was the least empowered of them all. Not because people didn’t empower me there, but their ability to cut me loose was quite limited by lots of things they couldn’t control like curricula and internal politics. But aside from that you can’t plan for kids and, as much as I adored them, they were good at throwing a massive spanner in the works and forcing me to give up my autonomy in favour of a systemic response.

So here I am, approaching a year full time and actually doing work and it’s not stressing me out. Maybe that’s it? Living in the wrong gender role messes with your head. The school I was most recently at shouldn’t have done that if that was the case, but maybe it just takes that long to internalise stuff and make it mine? Maybe I needed the automatic acceptance, the lower stress, and the adjustment time to really crack this nut.

If that’s the case, this job is not so different from my others. But I arrived here in a perfect storm state: I had a year to be me and have people treat me like me. I had the support of friends, and I’m moving into an even more friendly environment. Reduce the stress of the work and what you have is an ultimate sense of calm: I’m free of it.

I will never be a rich woman, but I think I can maybe be a happy one.

Unwrapping

I’ve been working on a piece for the local burlesque group I joined back in January, The Reinettes. The piece started off about framing the audience as some sort of abusive force; their expectations cause the dancer harm. I also had ideas about how my own need for a wig and breast forms are hard for me to accept and difficult to let go.

I’ve discussed in the past that my wig makes me feel human. My breast forms did the same until I stopped needing them. Hair and breasts make the woman, it seems. They were the first things I got and the things that let me go out into the world and be accepted. They set me free, but they also created a dependence that I wouldn’t call unhealthy, exactly, but it was damaging.

So the piece, my piece, is about that. Kind of. Like all things of this nature it changed meaning as I worked on it. My dancer and I had a lot of talks about self image, depression, anxiety, and how people treat us as women. I was using trans imagery because that is something that is part of me and my space, but I wanted her to understand that this is a human issue: women in particular often feel a need modify themselves, say with make up or shapewear lingerie, to leave the house. Often people who are overweight will distance themselves from others and avoid social situations.

We all present to the world a face we want to show. Or a hair style. Or  a body. Our selection of what to modify is as often based on how we feel others see us as it is on what we actually like and want to show.

So I got talking to one of the Reinettes over FB about general transiness and we really communicated well. And I got this idea of a piece with a strip within a strip, where someone removed their fake hair and boobs to reveal their hair was gathered in a wig cap and boobs were bound down. Then they would unbind themselves and free their hair to show that they never needed them in the first place. Or at least, there’s a woman under there, after all. I would have done it but I don’t have enough hair and I didn’t want to show a person between. I wanted to show someone who was physically cisnormative.

I said to her I had an idea for a dance and I wanted her to work with me, but I hadn’t actually explained it or anything before I was sat there explaining it to the group quite unintentionally. I was glad she came with me despite having almost no warning!

So we talked. And talked. And choreographed very little. Some work in a chair, some notes on expressive quality, audience awareness, circles of attention… Stuff I know about but had never put into practice. Essentially directing techniques osmosed from watching drama teachers instruct GCSE and A level children for a few years. It worked.

The whole thing came together in a single rehearsal two weeks before we were to show it to the artistic director and group leader. Three to four minutes of movement, clothes to remove. Bindings to undo and hair to reveal. To call the lady I work with ‘my dancer’ gives her far too little credit. I may be able to take credit for the conceptual framework but her interpretation of that makes it resonate.

It’s been a long time since I’ve involved myself in the collaborative process and it’s such a rush to do it again. And it’s stressful, and it’s difficult, and feelings ran high. I had messages with my dancer about how tricky this all is and moaning about what is basically a symptom of a good collaborative process. Strong ideas create conflict. The skill is to integrate them and I am defiant in nature. It’s a thing about myself that I’m proud of; it gives me strength. It also makes this kind of process difficult.

We are ready. There are things to fix, tightening to do. Practise, practise, practise. But practise itself causes issues. The comments are small, the feedback specific. It’s brilliant.

The process mirrors the piece in that from hardship and conflict emerges beauty.