Saturday, June 25, 2011

Finding a Voice

Did you ever hear about the Frog who dreamed of being a Princess and then became one?  Okay, maybe not the Princess but her Mom anyway.  The only trouble was, the minute she opened her mouth to sing everyone knew she was a frog, or had been.  The End.

Most of us want to communicate with others. So many of us want to do more than that, to find a voice.  In music and elsewhere, your voice says who you are. Being a Trans woman, I kind of have a problem with that . It requires so much working with.

Playing guitar with the Band (Cattlegrid)
Music making has always motivated me.  At the worst of times as a bullied misfit teen it was a refuge, somewhere to hide, a world where I didn’t have to be one gender or the other, at least alone in my room.  Onstage, in small folk gigs, people listened or sang along to the music, they didn’t just watch.  Someone once told me that the music is more important than the person who sings it, they are just the instrument.   I felt that maybe I could ‘hide’ in full view of everyone else because in a weird way I was the music.  I occasionally sang my own songs, but far more often was asked to sing other well known material.  I was a teenager, I borrowed other people’s voices or at least their lyrics.  Yes, I tried to make them my own but I had barely enough musical experience to do so.  Musical interpretation requires being sure of your voice.  I was too confused to have one.

What followed was a long period of self doubt, not only about myself and my gender but also about my music.  Growing older brought more self consciousness and the realization that others thought that a boy who tried to sing in a tender way about love and relationships was an anomaly.  I ‘lost’ my voice. I stopped singing, period.

Was that it?  I pretty much thought it was.  I went underground in more ways than I care to think. I tried to hide again, but this time by becoming ‘normal’. I took a regular job, I married.  I had two adorable children, a house, a garden and a dog.  I spent my time building a pretty home and tried to fit in.  For the best part of 20 years I hope that I gave it my best shot.  At least my acting an performance skills came in handy, pretending to be one gender when you actually feel that you belong to another takes a lot of energy.

Who knows what exactly prompts any trans person to come out and confront who they are.  For me it was recurrent depression that was getting so bad it was endangering whatever future I might have.  Coming out as a woman, living full time in my community as a female employee, a Mom, a daughter and a sister allowed me to finally be publicly the person that I had always been inside. What remained unspoken & unsung was a memory of all the experiences of people who tried to cut me down, bully me until I cried, corner me, crush me and hate me as well as those few who either felt the same or gave me a hug.  I felt numb.

When I took to songwriting again, it perhaps wasn’t surprising that my first new song was entitled FEEL.  Writing the lyrics and the melody was an easy task compared with learning to sing it as the woman I now am.  Modifying your speaking voice isn’t too difficult with practice. The harmonics involved in a singing voice however make it much harder, simply altering the pitch of your voice will make little difference

So what do I do?  Do I sing with the voice I have as best I can?  Do I tweak the EQ on the mixing desk to cut the bass? Do I reach for a stomp box that will gently modify the formants in my voice and make them more female? Do I modify my vocal tracks in post production. I’ve used so much other help with my appearance that maybe I should.

There’s no easy answer to this one.  Being relatively small, slim, having my own natural hair and wearing size 6 shoes, I tend to pass fairly easily and speak with a feminine sounding voice.  I very much wanted it that way, it makes my life easier and I love it but this is little more than a genetic lottery.  When I’m singing it’s another story.  We live in a society dominated by celebrities who appear to be perfect, perfect hair, perfect voice, perfect looks. But all of this is an illusion.  I’m a trans songwriter and musician so shouldn’t I be getting up there and being a trans singer, not trying to perpetuate an illusion of sounding like a natal woman?

Being Trans is not a choice, it’s a path that few would care to travel.  Earlier in life it lead me to silence and hiding.  This time around however hatever I do I won’t let it silence my voice :D

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Trans Mom and the Prom Princess

Once upon a time, there was a beautiful girl who longed to go to the dance.......This evening was the second of two trips to the mall with my daughter to buy everything a girl needs for her Prom.  I have felt so privileged that she felt she could bear to have me there to help her choose her dress, purse, shoes and even advise on what shade of lippy to wear.  I can’t begin to get my head around to realizing how incredibly lucky I am to be in this position.  Lucky too to have an ex partner who is happy to see me bring my daughter up and to be in this position.

I am so aware of how different it could all have been, aware of the many trans parents who never get to see their children or whose relationship with their ex is one of loathing and hatred.  I must say a huge thanks to my ex partner for being so tolerant and understanding.

It was not a therapist, but a ordinary friend at work who showed me that it was okay to be a Mom and not persist in plaguing myself with doubts about depriving my children of a Dad.  My lesbian work colleague did it so effortlessly by just sharing and chatting about her own children and asking about mine, about school, about sibling rivalry, about just being Moms.  She accepted me as my children’s Mom without any big deal and with no question.  There are laughs and low points and one very ordinary yet paradoxically extremely special relationship.

So, special and yet so ordinary - Princesses are very special, particularly to their Moms and yet Prom Princesses abound at this time of year,  they are just ordinary people. Very ordinary girls who are special to those whose lives they touch.  There is a pang of regret that I didn’t have this element of teenage girlhood in my own life,  no taking bags full of clothes over to my friend’s house to gossip, chat and get ready, no doing each others nails and makeup, only awkwardness at getting ready for a school dance in clothes I hated and where the people I really fancied were the ones I had to call my mates. I would have given ANYTHING to have been a plain and ORDINARY girl, not some weird boy who drew attention to himself by refusing to fit in........In the end, after a very long wait, he (well SHE actually) did get to live happily ever after :D

Reading this, you will have your own memories of school, both good and bad, you may be even just about to graduate High School for all I know.  Special or ordinary both, what were your experiences like?

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Becoming a Trans Mom

Speaking as a Trans Mom, I wonder how many of us really think all that clearly about how transitioning will affect the dynamic of our relationships with those closest to us.  Certainly I had plenty of time to think but not in a very rational way.  Instead, I grew up with a fear of disappointing people around me.  

Before I began to transition, and for many years previous to that I worried and feared about what might happen if I ever had the courage to come out to my family and friends or even to discuss with them how I felt.  As an older child and later as a teenager, I knew that there were multiple expectations about who I was and what I  might become.  To various people in my life, I was a son, grandson, nephew, mate, and boyfriend.  I might have been really uncomfortable being all those things but that was how other people expected me to be.  I learned to conform and try to live up to those expectations only to make myself increasingly depressed and suicidal.

Myself and Beth, my youngest daughter
Only now after over 6 years of transitioning  have I come to the realisation of how being a woman has has changed my role within my extended family and how much I’ve had to learn in a short space of time.  Far more than make-up, vocal and deportment skills and way beyond dressing appropriately and passing.

I have two daughters.  One now an adult, the other almost 17.  My youngest was a preteen girl when I began my transition and we moved in to an apartment in the town where we live now.  Yes, I did expect the horrors of being a trans woman caring for a child.  I knew that I might encounter problems with dealing with schools, clinics and hospitals.  Who was I? people wanted to know.  My daughter’s Auntie? her Mom? her Mom’s friend?  I had the bitter experience early in my transition of having to take my daughter to hospital late at night, minus my make-up and  my hair in a mess.  I was challenged and interrogated about who I was.  Later following my inevitable complaint the documents released reluctantly by the hospital showed that I had been recorded as ‘a man dressed as a woman’.  No, what took me unawares at first was dealing with my daughter’s first periods, talking about boys, listening to her problems with other girls at school, being a comforting Mom, teaching make-up skills, helping her choose clothes, basically just being a Mom.

I was no more prepared either for the responsibilities and of being a ‘good’ daughter and caring for my aging parents, becoming essentially a ‘sister’ to my ex-partner, an auntie to my nephews and nieces and strangest of all, BFF and confidante to a long time friend going through an acrimonious divorce with her husband.  I have embraced and enjoyed all of this as being part of my life.  It came as a welcome and not wholly expected ‘extra’ to coming out and transitioning.

All of this is really controversial stuff if I pause to think about it.   I’m describing I suppose what society thinks as essentially female roles and skills.  I’m well aware that many of my (former!) feminist friends would look down (no, do look down) on the way I have slipped into what are essentially traditional female roles.  I have occasionally been used (misused?) as an example of ‘the dangerous practice of transgenderism’.  I have also been accused of swapping one set of expectations about being male, for those of being female.

I didn’t covet the role of Mom, carer and homemaker.  Like many women my age, born in the late 50’s I have taken it on because I enjoyed seeing my family grow and blossom and was willing to take on all the other jobs that ‘went with it’.  I enjoy being a Mom because I enjoy caring and nurturing and because I love my daughters.  I love them to bits.  Do I need any other justification?  I hope not.  That I am a Trans Mom is by the by.  I am a Mom first and foremost and Trans second.  I hope that makes sense.

I would love to hear how other LGBT Men and Women have coped with their changing relationships.  Let me know :-)

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Where the Music Takes Me

Where the music takes me is just about any place these days but it hasn't always been that way.  Now I write about life in my songs and the hatred or kindness people show me gets woven like a thread into through the lyrics.  The experiences I have, the things I hear and see, all have their place, a bit like a blog really.  Without that life experience, I suspect that there would be no songwriting.  But songwriting isn't just about the lyrics, it's also about the melody.  Words can convey so much but melody can carry something else, abstract emotions, things you feel but can't verbalize.  Back as a mixed up transgendered teen, music was my escape from life into a world where I could be a guitarist with no ending on the word to show what gender I was.  Constantly picking or strumming my guitar alone in my room, changing the chords and notes to suit my changing mood was just about the only way I could cope with the constant bullying at school, the anxiety and health issues that went with it.

I have to thank others for that musical ability.  I can see myself sitting on the arm of a lounge chair in my grandparents parlour, my grandfather strumming banjo and my grandma playing piano.  By then she played purely by memory but it was all quite literally under her seat!  Grandma's piano stool had a lid and underneath it all of her sheet music.  Occasionally I was allowed to delve in there, into a goldmine and Aladdin's cave of 1930's and 40's Broadway melodies.  I knew the songs by heart having heard them played so often in our family music making, but there they all were, the material of Harry Warren and the fabulous lyrics of Al Dubin, the songs from Golddiggers of 1933 and 42nd street.  I could dream and imagine myself on stage in a show.  I could forget for a moment the horrors of a chool that was only a couple of miles away.

Aged 11, I learned my skills as a rhythym player, strumming or picking along to 'We're in the Money' or 'Shuffle off to Buffalo', a strange beginning for a transgendered boy whose idols were Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez.  Physically, music has taken me since to a lot of strange and sometime beautiful places, but mainly coffee houses and clubs with smoke filled atmospheres and less the ideal sound systems!  It's nice that music has the capacity to take us other places even if it's (only) in the mind.

Where does your music take you?

Monday, June 6, 2011


This post isn't about music. It's a step back to my beginnings.  I'm an only child.  My Mom very much wanted a daughter, then I came along.  There are lovely home movies of a sweet pretty dark haired woman in a 1950's full skirt and blouse feeding a pretty dark haired child sitting in a high chair.  She smiles at the camera and holds the spoon as she waits for me to open my mouth.  But I'm all eyes for my Daddy who is standing behind an 8mm movie camera capturing all this on film.  There is another scene on the same flickering film reel of our back garden in bright sunshine and my Mom with a basket of washing.  There is a little flight of steps down to the grass bordered by two immense blue hydrangea bushes.  I am crawling and when I get to my Mommy I haul myself up onto my little feet by tugging at her full long skirt.  Once again my Mom smiles so beautifully at the camera.

This is ME!
Later when I was older I remember having to be on my own with my Daddy while Mom made periodic visits to hospital.  Mom had one of the most awful nasties that follow childbirth, post natal depression,  It returned again and again and became a lifelong problem of depressive illness.  I grew close to my Daddy during those difficult times and I know now with hindsight the pain that gave to my Mom.

Josephine was the name Mom told me she had ready for the little girl she had expected.  Robyn was the name I got given because I was actually a little boy.  Was it strange that Mom should choose a name that would do for either sex in the end?

By the time I five and attending kindergarten I had known the heartbreak of seeing my best friend Julie whose dolls I had shared leaving me to play jump rope and double dutch with the other girls on the playground.  By the time I was nine I was playing wistfully in my Mom's room when she was busy, wearing her perfume and makeup, trying her clothes and shoes, hoping against hope that I would somehow grow up to be her or someone like her, a Mom with kids of my own.

I have a memory of being tired on very long journeys and falling asleep on the bench seat of our car with my head in my Mom's lap and feeling her hand stroke my hair.  I felt so secure, my Mom's daughter.

Mom had become so ill that she no longer recognised me by the time I had begun to transition.  I chose to keep the name she had given me, adding Jane as well to remember a much loved Grandma.  I could just as easily have become Josephine.  No doubt I would be Josie by now.  Mum died a few years later and just in time, I was able to say goodbye to her at her funeral as the daughter I had always really been.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Living the Dream

It's a phrase that gets used a lot these days.  I guess that when I was growing up, 'Living the Dream' wasn't anything that anybody did or said.  Things just happened to you.  I grew up with kids who dreamed of being football players, air hostesses, racing car drivers and movie actresses.  They turned out to be bank clerks, teachers, social workers and secretaries.  I'm not sure whether they gave up their dreams and cashed in their diplomas for a steady job, or whether they're still out there somewhere, still hoping to make it.

As for the girl that I was, she wrapped her dreams up in tissue paper with the other bits and pieces in her Hope Chest.  It was a lovely shiny dream of being some amazing performer and singer and it seemed such a shame.  The Hope Chest also included a short neatly written note to her teenage self, penned at a time of really deep despair when she thought that nothing would ever come out right.  It was written in the form of a vow, never to give up and to one day be confident enough to stand up on a stage in front of hundreds and hundreds of people (seemed a lot then), play guitar and sing.

I made decisions that I don't regret, met someone really nice and have had the time of my life raising a family and taking far more delight than I ever imagined in the ordinary but magical process of watching my children grow around me.

I've sung in front of a good few people since, but I've also pulled the tissue paper of that dream and contemplated it for a while.  True, it looked very nice and ornamental arranged with the perfume bottles on my dressing table but I think the time might have come to do something more about it. I've already started in fact. Along the way I kinda discovered that smaller audiences are way scarier to perform to than the hundreds I'd imagined. That nice shiny dream has got an awful lot battered, rough edged and reshaped in the process but it's still intact and really that's what matters. 

So, since you're reading this, what's your dream?

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Songwriting Mom

How do you balance being a Mom with being a part time singer-songwriter?  Especially when the other part time bit is a full time job.  Being a Mom is a full time job too and when you're still trying to put together your first CD years after writing its first song, it can seem desperate.  There is room for a lot of despair, for regretting that 'there is no ME time' and going to bed very late because you are keeping yourself awake writing or arranging.
My beloved Precision Bass
My own Mom back in '64
My own Mom spent many years writing three excellent novels and one well turned short story.  They were never published but they brought much pleasure to the many people who got to read them.  Mom got a great deal of satisfaction from hearing why people liked her stories and seeing the expressions on their faces as they dwelt on the passages they particularly enjoyed.  They were her audience, and in a small way she changed and influenced the way that they and others they knew thought.

My Dad brought home a new six string guitar when I was nine.  He intended to learn to play himself but never did.  I did instead.  For a while I wrote naive teenage songs, and some slightly better love songs.  People were patient enough to listen to me play in small clubs, pubs and venues in the rust belt town where I grew up.  I was a frustrated girl in a boring old town who dreamed of one day being a folk rock princess and playing big stages.  It never really happened, and maybe its a good thing it never did.

Now I have two girls of my own, one a trainee proffessional dancer and one an aspiring country music singer.  Bringing them up has been my life, at least so far.  Lately I've come to realise that they themselves have given me feelings and experiences which are now finding their way into a whole new set of songs.  Instead of resenting the time my family takes, I've come to realise that they ARE my muse and my songs.  So are the many people over the years who have either thrown hate at me for being transgender or shown me kindness.  Like a tapestry, you were all woven into my songs.

If I can ever overcome my indecision about arranging them and mixing them, they will appear here for you to listen to.  Until then, I have my family and a life.