…and just like that, I have remembered the how, the where, and the approximate when of the time and place that I first realised what I was.
I must have been about eleven, or certainly no older than my early teens. Prior to then there had been awareness, confusion, and anxiety that “boyishness” was not something I particularly excelled at, nor something I ever cared to excel at, but I lacked any vocabulary to define this. I am pretty sure I was in the Shetland Islands, of all places, in some self-catering cottage, on holiday with my parents and sister. They were catching the end of some documentary on the BBC, and this being the days before the great renaissance of reality TV (cancel sarcasm mode), it was a no-nonsense affair, with low-quality footage and no effort to glamorise or sensationalise the subject…
…the subject being male-to-female gender reassignment. I had never heard of this strange concept before, nor considered it as a possible thing, but there it was before my eyes, and the thought process did not take long before it occurred to me – with both joy and fear – that I might be seeing my future.
Transsexual… that was the only new word I learned from this brief insight, but it was something to better understand myself, especially as adolescence kicked in good and proper and I found that I utterly loathed every change my body was inflicting on me. Transsexualism is not a very fashionable word now, “gender dysphoria” having become the preferred term, but as the first word I ever had to shed light on my predicament, it still rings true for me. I remember also that the transitionee in that old documentary was a middle-aged person, which meant – as unfortunately tends to be the case for late transition if one is not Caitlyn Jenner or as rich – that her final appearance was androgynous at best, her voice untrained, and she was certainly not “passable” under close scrutiny. But I also remember how happy she seemed after the completion of her transition, and how her friends and family stood by her and accepted her new identity.
Transwoman. I knew from first discovering that there was a release from my malaise, that even so it embodied limitations. For transwoman is a category in and of itself, not directly equivalent to natal womanhood, however badly we may wish that it was, but nor is it merely a drag act taken to morbid extremes, as some would insist. In a society where gendered behaviours have fossilised into seemingly immutable prisons of the self even from early childhood, try as many parents might to resist those trends, it is a blessed escape route, on which note I would like to share a somewhat depressing anecdote from Natasha Walter’s Living Dolls…
“Before she had children herself, Fenella assumed that this freedom would only have increased for this generation. ‘I honestly didn’t think that anyone would have a problem any more with a girlish boy or a boyish girl. I thought my children would be living in an even freer time than I did in my childhood.’ But she has found the opposite, and for her son, a six-year-old who prefers dolls to cars and ballet to football, the problems are now very real. This is a generation in which many boys are encouraged into a stereotyped masculinity at an early age; for those who resist, life can be uncomfortable. […] What worries Fenella is that her son, whom she sees as a normal, even talented and creative child, is being made to feel abnormal and secretive about his interests and pleasures. ‘I think he would be a talented dancer or designer,’ she said to me, ‘but I fear it’s going to be squashed out of him, that he’ll feel he has to spend his time playing sport and he’ll end up an accountant like everyone else. And he’ll be a secret cross-dresser rather than just enjoying wearing great clothes in public. This culture seems to be making boys feel that certain behaviour is abnormal for boys, when it isn’t.'”
Walter, Natasha. Living Dolls – The Return of Sexism (London: Virago Press, 2010), pp136-7.
Perhaps in the future, if children like Fenella’s are encouraged by the whole of society to just be themselves at the earliest opportunity, that word transsexual will be obsolete, even meaningless. If there still remain any pathological or neurological causes for gender dysphoria – which is believed by many, though still highly debatable – then having a fully equal society of completely free expression would at least be sweeping the deck clean of unnecessary variables.* With enough will to change, it is possible, and I would hold that possibility worth fighting for.
For the present, however, that word remains for me what it was from the first: a distant signal of hope, though thankfully not quite so distant as it once was. An imperfect solution for an imperfect time? Perhaps, but not one I am any more ashamed to either pursue or to acknowledge. For whether or not I am ever enabled to transition, a transwoman is what I somehow became and what I always will be, and in finally surrendering to that fact I have never felt more alive nor more at peace.
*By which, incidentally, I do not mean to presume to have an authoritative opinion on the subject of children who commence social transition, hormone blockers, etc, at a pre-adult age. While I do consider myself as living evidence that persistent dysphoria can and does manifest in childhood, pre-teen referrals were an alien subject in my day, and one I do not feel qualified to speak on. I would, in any case, trust a responsible parent to weigh all of the available information and act in their child’s best interests accordingly.