Thursday, June 15, 2017

Bicycles, Baring all and Trans Body Positivity

Gender Dysphoria hits you right where it is most painful.  What the world sees is an outer body not the brain and mind within.  Like it or not, we get used to distinguishing female and male. We begin with infants.  Male and female babies can look remarkably similar. With little else to go on we fall back on examining genitalia. The midwife took one look at me and pronounced me a boy. She was wrong. I might have been, but I wasn't. Cover your baby up with clothes to keep her warm and people struggle when they're not blue or pink. With my second baby, I didn't want to know the gender even after the scan. I bought neutral clothes. Dressing her in yellow I got used to the inevitable question: 'Is it a boy or a girl?'.

It matters greatly how others categorise you, though I dearly wish it didn't.  We have an innate urge to classify and compartmentalise, even as young children.  I self identified as a girl.  I was assured by grown-ups that I was mistaken.  Children can pretend to be anything they want. I PRETENDED to be a Princess but I KNEW I was a girl.  There is a world of difference between pretending and knowing.  Even a child knows this. Years spent caring for little ones as an Early Years teacher have taught me that truth too.  We still however hold on to thinking children are too young to determine their own gender.

You know by now, that miscast as a boy, I was bought a boy's bicycle and tough boy clothes to wear.  I suspect the assumption was I would ride my bike 'like a boy' too, tearing around at great speed, ripping my clothes, scratching paint and knees in the process. I wasn't like that, but at least I was protected if I fell off. It was an earlier time.  Boys wore jeans and girls wore skirts. Being too big and having a crossbar, my bike was rather painful if I fell off.  I looked rather wistfully at my fellow girls who could ride their bicycles in a skirt.

Nudity was common when I was little, especially for little ones.  Back in the day, nobody worried too much about pre-schoolers romping naked on a beach or in a garden paddling pool. Maybe it made distinguishing boys and girls easier. Little boys knew perfectly well what little girls looked like and vice versa. In these days of child protection, little children are covered up. I was fortunate to have parents unashamed of their naked bodies who weren't embarassed to be seen naked.  I'm lucky that at least potentially, I grew up with a healthy, accepting attitude towards nudity.  Sadly, nakedness only exacerbated my dysphoria, hating my boy bits and longing to be like every other girl. As I grew, I showered in my swimming things.  I hated seeing what I couldn't cope with.

The cisgender among us learn to love and accept ourselves because others love us.  This is a given in human behaviour.  If we grow up unloved and inferior we learn to hate ourselves. Grow up being called 'Daddy's little Princess' and you feel pretty. If you're a trans child, it doesn't quite work like that, at least not for me. What confused me was being loved as a boy.  I'd told them I was a girl. I couldn't love the child others thought I was. I hated myself. I hated my body. Feeling it had let me down I used to hurt myself on purpose. I couldn't accept it as my own. Self harming became a coping strategy, half punishment, half subjugation of what I hated.  That's tough when it's yourself.

Against the odds, I've grown into a woman now. Adult bodies come in all shapes and sizes just like children.  As a woman you can have voluptuous curves or be tight, toned, and skinny.  Whatever your size, your body still dips and curves in a way very different to males.  Not all of us are totally happy with our body shapes however. We inherit them from our mothers. I'm slim. I have a cute little bum and small breasts. What I wanted was an ultra curvy shape but I wasn't going to get it.  I clearly take after Mum when she was younger. In time, I've grown to enjoy and appreciate being that way, mainly because my man likes me like that. Seeing his obvious sexual attraction to me naked is really infectious, it signals how desirable I am.  I've had to learn that cute, lithe and slim is a real attraction to guys. Seeing and feeling my husband enjoy me in loving intimacy makes me feel so good. Once again, love and attraction from the opposite sex has helped me love myself.  It's not essential but it sure as anything helps.

Realising that you accept yourself is very freeing.  Clothes and makeup, finding your own personal style and presentation is good but it only takes you so far. Sooner or later you are going to, quite literally, wake up with a partner without all that.  You may or may not be naked but your hair will be dishevelled, your make-up non existent and you'll be you and nobody else. For a Trans woman that is a scary place to be.  It's one you worry about when dating, especially after that important third date. If he wants to make love to you the morning after, he's a keeper. If he disappears you feel you've failed as a girl.  It can be a huge affirmation or a total let down. I got lucky. From that moment I accepted myself as whole, at least within a relationship.

The next step is a little harder.  Whether you're stealth, semi-stealth (is that even possible?) or just open, you're desperate to be accepted by the wider community.  That acceptance means no mis-gendering, no being mistaken for the opposite sex, no put downs and no disapprobation.  That is one heck of a wish list.  I took the brave step of finding out just how accepted I really am and if I truly felt confident in public. It was scary the first time.

Every summer, on one June evening, Manchester takes part in WNBR.  WNBR is the World Naked Bike Ride.  Held across many countries and in many cities it is a bid to promote cycling visibility, alternative transport and a naturist lifestyle. The invitation is to cycle 'as bare as you dare'.  Some participants are clothed, others wear underwear, some are naked apart from shoes and cycle hats, some are even completely nude.  WNBR in Manchester attracts in excess of 200 cyclists, some of them Trans.  This year marked my fourth WNBR and my third in Manchester. The ride starts at All Saints; a park just off Oxford Road near Manchester's City Centre.  Oxford Road is in the Student Quarter.  It is an area full of memories. This is where I went to college. I used to cycle up and down Oxford Road back then.  Living in Fallowfield, I rode my Raleigh Palm Beach bike to attend my classes.  If you read my last blog but one, you'll know that this was the 'boy's bike' I chose as a compromise - Boy's frame - Girly Paintwork. I certainly wouldn't have ridden it naked back then.

My replacement ride is a beautiful, bright yellow Dutch style girl's bicycle.  This year, I took it on the World Naked Bike Ride.  This time around, it was an important statement for me to cycle naked.  There are so many reasons. WNBR this year traversed the whole city centre from Northern Quarter to Gay Village.  It encompassed all of Manchester's main shopping streets and was witnessed by so many sightseers. Though an incredibly public event, in body positive terms, my nakedness was also for me. I did it to affirm a pride and acceptance of my body and to celebrate freedom from years of dysphoria and shame. It is a mark of my distance travelled that I don't mind others seeing who I am. This was much more then than being relaxed with my nakedness: It was an acceptance of being whole: body and mind as one, not in conflict.

I mentioned earlier that acceptance means freedom from disapprobation.  Sadly, where nakedness is concerned there'll always be disapprobation.  There will forever be those who equate nakedness with sex. This seems bizarre.  Me wearing erotic lingerie, is a total turn on for my husband, pure natural nakedness however is beautiful but not overtly sexual. I associate nakedness with deliciously cool skinny dipping, Croatian beach holidays and freedom.  I wouldn't wear saucy lingerie on the beach. While being naked makes sex easier and gives visual, tactile turn ons,  so does semi clothed quickie sex. You can enjoy cycling OR sex with or without clothes; essential for both is a respect and acceptance of your body and appearance. How you get to that point raises interesting questions.  For me it was Gender Confirmation Surgery. Disapprobation also abounds for those who have had it.

Reaching a place where you can respect and accept who you are is the key to happiness.  If you need surgery for that to happen, so be it.  This is not a search for perfection and surgery is not cosmetic enhancement. For me, Gender Confirmation Surgery was simply my turning point. It didn't make me into an 'ideal woman', it gave me the genitalia I should have been born with and confirmed my female identity. Estrogen did the rest. Others have a different route to body positivity. In the picture above, captured from footage, me and my husband are cycling naked past a Northern Quarter restaurant, Turtle Bay.  We are in the company of other naked cyclists.  In the video, they carry on passing for a long time. I was not the only Trans woman. There were pre-op and no-op girls too; all at one with their bodies. 

Wherever you are on your journey, good luck getting to that happy place too. If you're an ally, support us as much as you can. If you're a bystander, don't tear us down. If you see us ride naked down the street, give us a cheer. Believe me, we rode a long long way to get here!

HUGGS, Jane xx

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Maternal Instincts

According to my friends, there are some great aspects to being a TS woman.  No painful periods for one thing, no stressful pre-menstrual symptoms, fear of getting pregnant, uncomfortable PAP tests, moodiness, tampons, sanitary pads and so much more.  I've never been wholly convinced and now, four years post-op I'm even less sure.

Growing up as a teen I had the usual dysphoria so many of us experience.  I hated those pubescent changes, that feeling I was being taken over by an alien force, testosterone, and forced against my will to be something I was not. I was lucky in some respects. I never grew much facial or body hair, I remained small, slim and slight.  I didn't develop muscles in spite of regular exercise.  With smaller feet I could borrow Mum's shoes and my tiny waist and chest size meant that I looked better in girls clothes rather than the boy's stuff I was 'supposed to wear'. Teenagers are moody and I was no exception.  More exceptional perhaps was that I wanted to have kids and be a Mum. I loved babysitting (hard to believe I know) and helping neighbours with their toddlers. I loved to help them play and read to them , I was also a Sunday school helper.  All this seems bizarre looking back.  These days, in an era of concern about child safety, a 14 year old boy childminding might raise eyebrows.  I'm grateful it was accepted that I was 'good with children'.  One more reason I suppose why I trained as an Early Years teacher in College when I grew up.

Those maternal urges didn't go away.  By the time I'd reached my 20's I desperately wanted a family even though my partner was a little ambivalent.  As Trans women go, I've been really lucky to become a mother.  I spent 10 blissful years of adult life as a proud single Mum, raising a daughter until she was grown and independent.  Being a mother suited me.  I enjoyed balancing work and parenthood, loved homemaking and slowly tried to better myself by training as a counsellor. Of all the things I've done, bringing up a child and making a home have been some of the most satisfying. I've experienced. I can see my feminist mother shaking her head right now:  It makes me smile so much, mostly because she was such a loving caring mother herself.

I'm married now but I also have an empty nest.  Nobody really prepared me for how tough that was going to be. There is that lovely whirlwind phase in romance, that first summer with your guy, the Autumn that turns relationship to a deep attachment, the first Christmas with your boyfriend, the one year anniversary that prompts you to think he might stay, having him propose, learning to be a fiancée....and at first you think only of each other, totally bound up in celebrating love.  Sex is incredible, intense and just about the two of you, learning your partner's needs and having him satisfy yours. During that time I remember fleeting glimpses of a teenage yearning for permanence and commitment; a man in my life and security. It all came very rapidly for me. I'm a lucky girl.  As heterosexual TS women go I've been fortunate to find a lasting partnership and enter marriage, as a wife. What took me by surprise was the companion to that emotional security; wave after wave of renewed and uncontrollable maternal feelings. Deeply in love with a man who truly cares, I found myself desperately wanting a second family and strangely weepy about my inability to conceive.

Being TS, I'm infertile.  Infertility can be one of the nasties of being Trans, it never goes away.  While every other newly married woman seems either to have a baby or be expecting, I most certainly am not.  I've wept so often for my unborn children; rivers of tears stretching back to childhood.

My hubby is all too aware of my ups and downs, especially my mood swings.  I had thought it was just a side effect of being TS.  There were patterns though.  My husband talks teasingly about the effects of the moon.  In the end, I chose to investigate further.  There are many period tracking apps out there, I happened to try Clue.  At first I mainly recorded irritability, stress and mood.  What surprised me was how it confined itself to two or three days per month; days when everybody annoys me; I feel like venting off or gloom overcomes me.  Shortly after, happiness returns but also a grumbly tummy, alternate diarrhoea and constipation and strangely a renewed interest in sex.  Beginning to track all else sexual I began to find that my sex drive soars mid month only to tail off again toward the end. Why is this?  Though I have a vagina, I don't have ovaries or a uterus as far as I know. I no longer need sanitary pads, a three month long post-op 'period' was my only experience of blood stained undies and bedsheets.

Are my symptoms somatic, caused by hormones or even wishful thinking? I'm really not sure.  Mentioning it to my consultant and my doctor, they shrugged their shoulders and were non-commital. My endocrinologist explained that we know too little about how hormones affect our behaviour, in particular for those with re-assigned genders. Medical knowledge concentrates on how they affect sex organs, during pregnancy, lactation and in pubescent changes.  We are much more vague when it comes to the mind.  I do know however that my cyclical mood changes have been there since adolescence and were no more welcome then than they are now.

Now I have an app that warns me when PMS is about to happen.  Before, it was my husband who sensed my mood but didn't comment for fear of 'getting his head bitten off'.  Now I'm more relaxed about it and philosophical.  I deal with it better, knowing that it's just a couple of days. I'm aware that keeping active and even sex will help relieve tension and that relief will come. Sadly I also get warned that my fertile window is coming up.  I wish.  I get aroused much more easily, initiate sex more often and come better but I do know that I won't conceive. My broodiness remains; a real instinctive desire to start a new family and to create new life. The urge to make a baby with a man I know would make a good father. It seems cruel.  The only other women who understand it are other tearfully infertile females too.

So no, not being 'on' every 29 days isn't so much a blessing as some might think.  I'd give anything for the assurance that my body was still able to conceive, even though I haven't this time.  In any case, I get the pains and the PMS without the bleeding, not much of an advantage.  I experience the ups and downs without the compensating option of a successful and wanted pregnancy.  Like most infertile women, I would embrace morning sickness, discomfort and tiredness to have a family and to give my husband a son or daughter. Maternal instincts are always there and I can't control them. I didn't ask for this yet I know I have to live with it and get on with my life.

Fortunately I'm not a radical feminist otherwise I'd probably hate myself and have never completed transition.  A sex positive feminist, I believe very firmly in a woman's right to assert her sexuality. I believe she should do it in whatever way she wishes, be it celibacy or polyamory.  I accept that TS women are women, period, if you pardon the pun - If like me, you grew up a girl, it is difficult to imagine yourself otherwise.  My husband still marvels that I knew so little about men and had to learn how to arouse him. My sister said recently, 'How can anyone see you as anything but a woman, that's how you've always been.'

I'll end there.  I hope that I've conveyed how tough this is.  I'm not asking for sympathy but insights from others might be helpful. I have no idea how many other TS women experience infertility or period like symptoms this way.  It can be quite a lonely place to be.  Please let me know if you feel th same.

HUGGS, Jane xx

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Pedalling, Ponytails and Un-ticked Boxes

Growing up is made of dreams and wishes.  When you are young, envy of others, jealousy and just plain longing all feature highly in your journey to grown-up freedom. As a little girl I coveted baby dolls, toy prams, Barbie dolls, bath sets, party dresses and anything else my Mum wouldn't let me have.  My wish list included a proper girl's bicycle and growing my hair long enough to have a ponytail. My Mum had a pixie cut and mine had to be the same.  It lead to tears and frustrations, particularly my hair.  Every time I had my locks cut it lead to tantrums: years went by before I was allowed to grow it out. As for bicycles, I had to content myself with a boy's version.  I chose a red and orange one in defiance, riding it to school regularly. My choice was accompanied by derision from my friends. Being ridiculed hurt me but was also validating: At least I had the satisfaction of failing to comply with expectations. Later, when I had my hair styled like Joan Jett's I was beaten up and my teeth broken.  I told my parents I had fallen off my bike. Hair and bicycles is an interesting jumping off point then, pardon the pun.

Growing up, trans children often have a clear idea of how they want to be perceived and what their definition of gender means for them.  My wish list was influenced by the other girls I played with or sat alongside in class. There was a strong urge NOT to stand out and just be like everyone else.  The trouble arises when 'like everyone else' refers to the gender you weren't assigned to; female. My friend Janet had a ponytail, I needed one too. It was a box I desperately wanted to tick. 

Notwithstanding, I had a clear idea of what I wanted in a bicycle and my hair.  My hair was much darker then. Riding a bike with a long mane of brown hair streaming behind me seemed like a nice idea. My Mum said it would get tangled; better to keep it short and practical. Later when my hair did grow, I found that my mother was right. My hair grew long enough for a stumpy ponytail or bunches but getting a brush through it was a nightmare. Naturally frizzy, wavy and full of volume, my hair was impossible to comb and I used to borrow her bristle hairbrush to tame it. It wasn't until my body experienced oestrogen that my hair became straighter and glossier. As a teen my rather shallow dreams of a swishy ponytail went unrealised.

Children can be shallow, mean and very exclusionary.  Having the wrong sort of bicycle meant you weren't allowed to play with either the girls OR the boys! My dream bicycle was to have a girl's frame, nice bright paint, red or yellow, and certainly a basket on the handlebars. I didn't want a metal basket, it had to be a proper one.  I wanted white tyres too, handlebar grips and a white saddle. With a practical Engineer father choosing my bike, none of this was ever going to happen.  The bright red and orange paint meant raised parental eyebrows and scepticism yet in the end it was allowed. My Raleigh Palm Beach bike was the nearest I got to my dreams, the tyres were white too as well as the saddle and other bits.  My Dad balked at the idea of a girl's frame though, 'not strong enough' was his reply, (even though it came in a girl's version) Just what sort of use did he imagine a child like me would put it to? Are girl's gentle with their bikes and boys rough? In the end, my bicycle, a hybrid of boy's frame and girly paint, did not exactly pass with my playmates or Dad, a bit like me really.

Fast forward to my wedding.  I wanted beautiful dark curls framing my face. My stylist advised me to grow it longer as curling shortens the length.  I did.  My hair looked truly beautiful for my Hen Night and again on my special day.  I was made up.  Afterwards I continued to grow it out and to my surprise it straightened and became glossier. For a while I wore it up in a bun. I'm a professional barista and long hair is a no no. You can't have hair in your face when making coffees. Sadly I also have early mornings and a bun can be fiddly to do. A little while ago I tried a ponytail again. It seems so shallow and frivolous but I found that I loved the swishiness and the freedom of it after having it tightly pinned up. Does this really look okay' I asked my husband. He obligingly photographed me from behind on his phone and, wow, it looked lovely, boxed ticked!

Last week I saw the bicycle of my dreams in a shop window.  Yellow, girly, and with the obligatory basket on the front, it was love at first sight. It was also at a price I could just about afford. There followed more than a week of soul searching. Money is scarce and tight, could I justify ticking this particular box from childhood? I do need exercise. I live in a traffic congested city where a bike is an asset. Manchester is flat and easy to cycle in.  These were all well argued technical reasons.  I tend to buy with my heart however.  What girl ever needs an excuse to indulge and treat herself? Last Sunday I bought my new bicycle and had the time of my life riding it up the canal towpath. It was sunny and it was bliss.  Straight out of the shop, nicely set up, it rides like a dream but that wasn't the main thing.  Best of all it is a girl's bike, basket, yellow paint and all.  No little girl on Christmas Day could ever be as joyfully happy.  At long last I have what I wanted, not at Christmas when I would have to go riding in the snow, but at the beginning of summer, with days in the park, family picnics and days out all to enjoy. I'm ecstatic.

HUGGS, Jane xx

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Manchester my Home - a Plea for Acceptance

By now you'll be aware of the attack on my home city.  The area I love so passionately is all over the news today, not only here in the UK but worldwide.  I'm sitting in a bar drinking coffee. This is where I type the blog you read every week.  The wall mounted TV screens cover the news.  As a rule it can seem generalised and remote: when Manchester's Albert Square and City Hall appear on screen it is usually a new business initiative or political coverage. Today there are images of flowers and interviews with those coming to terms with tragedy.

My home is New Islington Marina, part of Manchester's M4 district. I live, quite literally, within earshot  of Manchester Arena. Half a mile away, it lies just outside Victoria railway station. When the blast went off, those 40 or so families who live here on the boats, heard it. As a student at the University of Manchester, I caught the train to visit my parents from that station. It was a place I associated with joy and pleasure.  I've enjoyed so many gigs in the arena from Taylor Swift to Miley Cyrus.  I love Ariana Grande too but I couldn't afford tickets.  Being poor was a blessing this time around. The feeling now is one of joy turned to intense sadness.

At first we hoped for the best.  There were rumours of an exploding speaker at Ariana Grande's concert, isolated reports of a girl injured and people running scared through the streets.  As the news unfolded it became clear that this was no accident but a likely act of terrorism.  On social media one or two friends began to lash out at the those who had carried out the attack.  Inevitable allusions to Muslims and Islam were included.  In fear and horror people can be very callous as well as afraid.

As morning broke the full scale of the atrocity emerged; 59 injured and 22 people dead, many of them children. Canal Street mourns too. One of the missing was Martyn Hett a member of Manchester's LGBT community.  Known to many of our friends, he has since been listed among the dead.  A 29 year old journalist and LGBT advocate he is a sad loss especially among those in the Gay Village. Given Ariana's fanbase, young girls and women were also counted among the victims.  In Manchester life went on but the conversation was universally about one thing.

I run a pop-up coffee business.  I trade in the suburb of Wythenshawe.  I work in the main shopping precinct enjoying the wonderful camarardarie of other street traders.  Among them are a Muslim couple who have their own fashion stall.  Inevitably we talked about what had happened, my customers too.  Most people were condemnatory of the bombing. My Muslim stall holder neighbours condemned the violence too.  Even so, many passing their stall looked daggers at them as if they were to blame.  I overheard another man outside a cafe decrying all Muslims as hateful and expressing a wish that 'they be sent home'.

After work, like many other Mancunians, myself and my husband made our way to Albert Square. It was a beautiful sunny evening but there were police everywhere.  As we passed through Piccadilly Gardens I saw two police officers with sub-automatic weapons. When we got to the square we found it packed with people.  Politicians of all shades denounced the attack as we stood together to remember those killed in the blast. There was a spirit of unity and a refusal to be intimidated. On one of the monuments however some of the English Defence League shouted xenophobic hate and echoed the sentiments I heard earlier.  Earlier, a rally of EDL supporters had done the same on Market Street. 

My mother's family were Jewish settlers, My father comes from a Christian background. I was brought up a Quaker girl, raised in a tradition of peace, pacifism and respect for all people.  I'm proud to call myself a Mancunian. I'm also a transsexual woman and no stranger to hate.  I'm aware of being barely tolerated by some in the college where I previously worked.  By some convoluted argument, I was made to understand that as a Trans person, I was responsible for undermining family values. Individuals like me were to blame for the disintegration of society, yet I'm simply a woman. It is a hateful argument, one with no evidence and but strangely pervasive among those willing to hate. I see much the same argument against those who want Muslisms 'sent home'.  It ignores that so many of Manchester's Muslim community were born and raised here. They are Mancunians too.

Please don't let us turn the Manchester bombing into a hate campaign against Muslims or anybody else.  This was an extremist attack not an act of war by one faith group on another. It has given us an opportunity to show we stand together; a whole community, united in diversity not divided in difference.

Huggs and Peace,


Thursday, May 11, 2017

Intimacy, Initiation, Inventiveness and Independence

Do you enjoy Charades? Could you communicate 'Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason' to your onlookers?  It is over four years since I completed my transition and ventured out again into the world.  Up to that point I had been strangely dependent on a charade or so it felt seemed. If you're TS, that interregnum between coming out and experiencing surgery can feel a little fraudulent.  For me it lasted 7 years.  During that time I raised my daughter as a single Mum, held down a Teaching Assistant Job and started training as a counsellor.  Though I had felt female my whole life, the process of convincing everyone else was so hard: People who knew you previously seek to invalidate you.  Thrill seekers want to date you for 'dickgirl' sex. Officialdom resists changing your identity and 'normal' life seems to elude you.  You end up with the impression that your existence rests on sufferance and grudging tolerance.  If you are clever at charades then others might understand you as 'you' and not someone else.  Misunderstandings abound. Controlling the messages you give off in speech, appearance and demeanour are important. Choose your friends well and they will sensitively mirror what others see. On the scene, we call it 'learning to pass'. It can feel a little like 'the edge of reason' itself.

Post-op I was launched into the world afresh, dating again, building new confidence, I finally found a new independence.  I re-invented my appearance. I tried to create a sexier, more attractive 'me' and I pushed myself to have courage and confidence.  By that point, I was confident at passing.  Shopping for a new work outfit I was wolf whistled by a couple of builders and realised how genuine it was, not mocking my trans-ness. I found that guys like confident and playful women. Suddenly I was 'out there'. I learned to flirt. I had always smiled a lot. I learned to pick up when guys are hitting on you.  Life began to feel like fun again. Sex however made me a little nervous.  I was still a virgin and in spite of the regular experience of dilating my vagina with perspex, I felt quite scared. Adult females who are still virgins are fairly rare.  I wondered if any guy would ever find sex with me pleasurable. One of my dates, a really nice guy, bailed at the thought of taking my virginity.  It didn't help my confidence.

When I finally got a regular boyfriend, things began to change.  When a guy lends you his coat because you're cold, buys you new dresses and puts your photos in his phone, you start to relax.  I lost my virginity in woodland, caressed by his touch and softly descending rain.  It was deeply romantic and gentle, quite unlike my first time.  My initiation wasn't full on passionate intimacy:  I wouldn't advise that only 3 months post-op. It was, however, a start: Building sexual confidence starts with little steps it seems. I'm a married woman now.  Sex is decidedly full on and passionate; hot unbridled enjoyment whenever I want and a delicious intimate bond with my husband. It may sound strange but I finally learned that sex was so much more than intercourse.

When you grow up with the wrong body parts sex can be confusing and intercourse downright intimidating. I never understood how close a woman can feel to her man when he's inside her and making her climax.  Learning how to enjoy that moment fully meant ceding control to somebody else and letting him lift me as high as he wants.  It involved the realisation that seeing you ecstatic and breathless makes him want you more. Moreover, I began to value his masculinity as a complement to my femininity.  To a girl who was raised as a feminist in waiting, all this was a revelation and a puzzle.  Was I selling out to a patriarchal view of sex? Should I be ashamed of myself? Thankfully I came to the realisation that I wasn't. Enjoying foreplay and penetrative sex with a man who loves and respects you is freeing. Experiencing sex as a joyful, mutual act for you both is a sex positive act.  For me, it helped define me as a woman.  It also helped me to celebrate that womanhood and enjoy it.  Having a vagina and clitoris starts to feel like part of you and not just the product of surgery. Best of all, it willingly bonds two people and creates something new. Your marriage begins to take on a meaning that pleases you both.  You feel protected and supported. This isn't new.  It is as old as time.  I can't speak on behalf of my Gay and Lesbian friends but I'm sure that their experiences are equal, especially when there is love and respect for each other.

I'm aware that things could have been different and I am grateful that they weren't. I could have ended up in a controlling relationship.  I'm drawn to alpha males and adventurous men. I'm dizzy, impulsive and controlled by my heart.  I could have wound up unhappy or with no boyfriend at all. I am either very lucky or very brave. I'm never quite sure which. I look around at other friends and wish for good things for them too.  Most of all, for the type of relationship that suits them:  I'm aware that heterosexual monogamy isn't for everyone.

Four years on in a relationship, I've come to realise that the magic remains if you are inventive and willing to play.  I've found to my surprise that you carry on dating your husband, dressing sexily, sharing naughty fantasies and being adventurous.  Inventiveness is something that comes with the territory. Finding new ways to surprise and excite each other is an journey that never ceases to delight. It works both ways. Some things took me by surprise however.  They're not confined to post-op TS relationships but they are significant.  They've left me wondering.  Wondering why I ended up a married woman the hard way, or even just a woman.

The surprises were infertility and a monthly cycle. Infertility is a shock, even though you know it is an inevitable consequence of transition.  I have two children from a previous marriage.  He has two from his.  We already therefore have a family of four between us.  Nothing prepared me for the yearning to carry his baby inside me and have a child of our own.  I had imagined that box to have been ticked but it wasn't.  That longing to carry his child began once I felt protected and nurtured, once we had built a home of our own and planned a future.  I couldn't help it.  It came of its own, unbidden and took root in my heart and mind.  Not being able to get pregnant and create a new family together is tough.  It is one of the saddest parts of being born Trans. You learn to live with it but it's always there. I'm broody whenever I see other Mums with babies, I still get sad and cry sometimes.

Something else deepened that loss and bewildered me too.  Aware that I have recurrent moods I find, I began to track them.  Those moments of tension, conflict, moodiness and headaches tend to fall towards the end of the month for me.  They last a couple of days, no more.  Straight after, my sex drive increases but I also have an upset tummy. Mid month, I feel great and am mad about being bedded and pleasured.  None of this makes any sense.  I wasn't born with ovaries as far as I know, or a uterus.  Apart from 3 months of sanitary towels post-op, I don't have periods. Even so, I seem to have PMT. Things are easier now I know it's coming.  My husband is finding his way around my predictable moodiness too. Are my cycles wishful thinking? Somatic feelings caused by transition? I don't know. I'd love to know if others experience these monthly changes or not.  When I mentioned my experiences to my doctor he just shrugged his shoulders.  Anything might be possible, he ventured, we know too little about post-op men and women.  There is so little follow-up.

I have been candid and forthright in my blog post. I hope that sharing these things might help others make sense of their feelings too or inspire them to write about you their experiences of sex. TS men and women are men and women but they don't share the usual starting points.  There is much written about cisgender sexuality but so little about ours.  How TS men and women experience sex may be conditioned by our experiences of heterosexual, gay, lesbian or bi sex or it may not.  I really don't know.  What I do know is that my journey to self awareness as a woman is a continuing and exciting one, full of surprises.  I hope that yours is too.

Huggs, Jane xx

GCS: Welcome to the Rest of your Life - 1

I often get asked by the inquisitive about Gender Confirmation Surgery.  How was it for you? What does it feel like? What emotions did you go through? 

My surgery was several years ago now in Charing Cross Hospital.  The experiences I describe below are just one of many accounts. Look around and you will find so many takes on this experience.

GCS is a bridge; a final stage in some people's transition that joins the 'before' and 'after'.  It is often mistaken for transition itself though it is nothing of the sort.  Surgery is the path some of us take to a final completion point. It affirms a lifelong belief in our gender identity as we experience and live it. For some MtF's we need it to correct birth anomalies: No woman should have to endure her life with male genitalia. I couldn't.

For me GCS was a life saving operation, one which brought to an end years of depression and suicidal feelings. Over the next few months I will try to chronicle this point in my life with a narrative account.

Here is the first instalment.

It's cold for April. Cold and damp in Paddington. Shivering, I glance down at my overnight bag.  Why on earth did I pack such flimsy, summery, city clothes?  I'm waiting with Rachel for a taxi that should have been here at 5.30 am. It's now 6.15.  They want us there for 7.30 sharp or it's simply not happening. I'm panicking, Rachel isn't.  'We'll give them 15 minutes 'till half past, then phone someone.' I want to scream.  Yesterday evening in East Acton, eating out in the Lebanese, we had discussed shared experiences and sipped fresh mint tea. It had all looked so simple, like this is the last lap and time for a celebration. Now I'm not sure this is actually going to happen, after eight years waiting? Oh Fuck!

Rachel is chatting to someone on the phone.  'They're not sure where the taxi's got to, isn't that typical?' She says, covering her phone's mic with her hand. 'They say we should get our own.'

'How are we supposed to do that?'

Rachel is so good in an emergency.  I'm not.  Within minutes she has an app up open , she's arranged a cab and we're waiting on the side of the road outside St. Mary's Hospital.  Five minutes later we're driving past the BBC and heading full speed for Hammersmith Broadway.  Soon we're on Fulham Palace Road and turning in through the entrance of Charing Cross Hospital.  I end up paying the cab fare, Rachel doesn't have the cash.  We grab our bags from the boot of the car and race in though the entrance of Marjorie Warren Ward. Walking briskly down what seems to be the longest corridor in the world, my breathing has quickened to a shallow nervous pant and I have a fluttering heart beat to match. A nurse checks us both in at the desk and we're on the ward, shown to beds and being told to change into gowns. A long curtain is swished around the bed and suddenly I'm all alone.  

I'm trying hard to desperately control my erratic breathing as I take off my skirt and top. I'm a neat freak but I'm stuffing my pretty yellow cotton top into my bag as though I'll never wear it again.  What if I never DO wear it again because I don't make it through surgery? I have visions of my teen daughter, tears rolling down her cheeks because she she said goodbye to her Mum and won't ever see her again.  The last time I saw her she was trying hard not to cry as she stepped into my sister's car to drive off to hers. I try to imagine the tide of anxiety she's experiencing as she copes with her GCSE's and her worries about me. Her FaceTime with me last night was so supportive and smiley but I know she was hiding so much.  Today she's at school. I forcibly dismiss my own anxious thoughts and struggle to tie the strings of my gown behind my back.  I'm going to have to ask for help with this.  I feel like an invalid. It reminds me of trying to zip up my dresses before going out.   Not for the first time do I lament the lack of a husband, fiancé or even boyfriend in my life. He would be there to comfort my daughter and support me.  Being a single Mum sucks.

'Are you ready?' Rachel's disembodied voice comes from beyond the curtain.

'Yes, as ready as I'll ever be', I quip and a nurse tugs the curtain back.

'They're asking who wants to go first,' Rachel asks, 'Will you, please?' I want to say no, to postpone this life changing moment for a few more hours and to put my thoughts in order.

'Yes, I'll go first', I hear myself saying. 'I want to get this over and done with.' Even if this means I'm left disabled, in chronic pain or even dead? I dismiss the thought from my mind. In the corner of my eye I'm aware of a smiling guy in cycling gear approaching my bedside.  This is James Bellringer my surgeon.  He has an easy bedside manner, a gentle, reassuring attitude to it all and smells comfortingly as all hot perspiring males do after hard exercise. I find myself missing my father and I'm reminded again of the acute lack of a partner in my life.  I'm pretty sure that there'll never be one.

'If we can just have a little look at you down there and check everything's okay before we prep you.'

He looks, I don't.  

I never want to look or touch.  I hate that part of me. I last saw it when I had to shave yesterday before surgery. I hate the feelings associated with 'down there'. When I was born, the doctor took one look at me and pronounced me a boy. I've never felt like one. I'm the kid who used to sit in the bath with swimming trunks on, who played with other girls, who asked Santa for a doll and a pram, who insisted she would grow up to be a woman just like her Mum. I'm relieved when my gown is closed again.

'The anaesthetist will see you in a minute and explain what will happen.  Then you'll have your enema. When you see me next, I'm going to look a bit different', he jokes before leaving.

I have my blood pressure taken and I'm weighed before I have my enema. It's horrible feeling it stinging and irritating inside me.  I feel intensely uncomfortable lying in bed on my side trying to hold it in.  The urge to go to the loo is so strong.  My tummy has been churning all morning with concern and worry anyway and now this.  Why did I need an enema? Luckily when I do go rushing headlong for the loo, there are two cubicles.  That's fortunate as Rachel's already occupying the other one.

The anaesthetist is waiting from me when I emerge from the toilet. She sits down on the edge of my bed smiling and reassuring. and is almost apologetic at all the details she has to go through. 'I'll be giving you a general anaesthetic and an epidural.  Once we're in theatre I'll have to go through information and disclaimer forms with you.  I have to do that to double check that you are aware of the risks involved and the possible complications.' OMG this is so designed to scare me and raise my blood pressure, do I really want GCS? So what will I do? Run away screaming down the corridor in my gown? Jane, get a grip Honey.' 

I flip back mentally to childhood, daydreaming of being all grown up and wearing a white gown of a prettier sort. Aged nine, this SO wasn't how I imagined becoming a woman was going to be. At nine years old I used to sneak into Mum's room and sit before her dressing table with all its makeup, perfume and hairbrushes. It was nice to just be there dreaming, wondering what life might be like when I grew up to be a woman, and hopefully, a Mum. Yes, I used to borrow her lippy, eyeliner and mascara.  They too were promises of a grown up life like the nice clothes which, although too big for me, I used to try on. I never imagined I would have to go through this and feel so scared. Still smiling and re-assuring, my anaesthetist says that she'll be seeing me very shortly, "I'll be wearing scrubs", she says. 'Shortly' is ringing around in my head like an alarm bell but the return of the nurse who gave my me my enema gives me no too to dwell on it. "Are you ready to go on up to theatre?"

I've been expecting to be wheeled up to theatre on a hospital trolley.  The last time I was in hospital, aged seven, with acute peritonitis, I think that is what happened.  That was an emergency, this is elective but the thought of not being able have it has lead me to the brink of suicide four times. Germaine Greer, an idol of my teenage years, considers it 'mutilation'. If I get through this, the woman my Mum taught me to revere will still not consider me to be a woman. 

My nurse starts to chat to me as we walk up the long corridor from the Riverside Annex. We haven't gone far before she notices that I haven't removed everything as ordered.  In my haste to get ready (I've been in the hospital less than two hours) I've forgotten to take off my heart necklace.  This was a treasured present from my daughter Beth on Mother's Day. I go running back to the Ward and put it safely in my locker, somehow being parted from it makes me tearful, a slender silver thread tethering me to Beth.  In a bizarre turnaround of rites of passage, I now seem like the one growing up into a woman, not her. I hurry back to the waiting nurse who walks me on, smiling and chatting through the labyrinth of corridors.  We reach a large lift and wait while a patient is wheeled out on a trolley, connected to a drip, seeming semi-conscious. Will that be me in so many hours time? Getting out at the ninth floor of the tower block, we reach the doors of the operating theatre and go in.  All seems so businesslike.  Gone are James Bellringer's cycle shorts and sweaty lycra top. He's all in pale blue now.  I can't believe that I'm being invited to sit and then lie down on the operating table myself? This all seems too matter of fact and routine, not the life threatening experience I was imagining!

"I'm just going to run through the risks associated with surgery and ask you to sign," says the anaesthetist. Percentage wise, the risks are small but as she reads through the list, the number of things that can go wrong seems enormous, haemorrhaging, pulmonary embolism, vaginal fistula (a hole developing between the vagina and rectum, vaginal prolapse, loss of vaginal depth, incontinence, loss of clitoral sensation, unexplained and debilitating nerve pain, urine infections...the list seems endless.  I sign a waiver form saying that I know and understand the risks and that they have been read out to me.  A signature scarcely seems enough.  I feel like writing ' This list REALLY frightens me, I'm feeling so scared right now, my life is in your hands.

'We work really well as a team' says James Bellringer, who, looking at me seems to be reading my mind, we have to read all these things through to you but the risks are quite small." I'm aware that this is the point I could say no.  I could simply get up off the operating table and walk away.  I don't have to do this, or do I? Then the thought of returning to the heartache and my suicidal past takes over.  I'm not brave but there really isn't any option if I want to survive. I have to do this. I sign and lay back down.

'There is one final thing' explains the anaesthetist. You have the option to donate testicular material to HIV research. If you are happy for that to happen, can you sign again here?' I'm reminded of my Psychotherapist's quip when I told him my daughter just wants me back in one piece...'Well not quite,' was his rejoinder.  I sign again, happy to oblige. I'm so glad that there are pieces of me that won't accompany me to the grave. They join my appendix (removed when I was seven) and the teeth the bullies broke when they beat me up at school. They beat me up for being a sissy, a total girl and a pussy, ironic really.

Now I'm trying to concentrate on what my anaesthetist is saying right now.  I'm being asked to count to ten.  I begin. One, two, three and then a split second of awareness of sensory fading. After that there's nothing.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Like Mother like Daughter

When I was in kindergarten, our mothers took it in turn to walk us home from school.  It wasn't far.  Our route lead us across a green park and into a housing estate.  You got to know the other kid's Mums and how they were different to yours. My Mum was feisty, short haired and outgoing. One of my friend's Mums less confident.  I think her name was Audrey.  She was kind, tender and gentle. I suppose that she was the epitome of a caring mother of that time. She took her turn with everyone else on the school walk home. One cold Winter's day, I ended up with dog mess on my shoes. Audrey kindly cleaned the mess off with a tissue. She was so kind to me; no blaming me for not watching where I was going like some of the other Mums did. It was however the last time I ever saw her.  Not long afterwards, she contracted pneumonia and died. She left two young children.  It was an awful shock.  Aged six, I couldn't imagine life without a mother.  How could any child manage? It was so tough on my friend with whom I used to play, even worse for the father.

My mother died a good many years ago now.  She too died from pneumonia.  She didn't live to see me marry Martin, nor to see her daughter blossom into the confident woman she is today. I really miss her. I've often wished I could chat to her and hear her voice. In our memories we tend to idealise our loved ones I think. My Mum is no exception. I knew her as a mother, someone who cared for me and about me.  I have come to realise though that motherhood is only a role: Behind it is a whole person.  We don't always see that individual for the complex adult that they are, especially when we are children.

More recently, clearing my father's house, I came across Mum's diaries.  They span the period between 1980 and the mid 90's before she became ill. They lay in a box for some years; I didn't feel emotionally strong enough to open them. More recently, I got them out again. I've begun to read them and to reconnect with her through her deeply private thoughts. It has been wonderful, like getting to know her again, but this time as an adult and a friend. So much of my mothers writing in 1980 was about the approach of a big birthday. She was more or less the age I am now. No longer a young Mum she had begun to take stock of her life so far, her sexuality and where her life was going. As I read her thoughts about that year I became aware of my Mum as a grown up person, one with deep feelings and aspirations, unmet needs, yearnings and a great capacity to love.  An author, and local politician she was clearly caught up in her writing but struggling to balance it with her married relationship and her immense capacity for love and intimacy.

Reading through the months and events of 1980, I realised that both my Mum and my Dad were balancing their sexual needs against their wish for companionship and support. They both loved each other deeply, that is clear. They stayed married throughout their lives.  They lived however in an adventurous era of wife swapping, free contraception and sexual experimentation. They weren't prudish. They were open with me about sexual relations, weren't ashamed about their nakedness and had a bookshelf full of books about sex. It wasn't foisted on me, but the books were there to be consulted if I wished and as a teenager I was told where to find the condoms if I ever needed them. I know that my father had a collection of girly magazines like many men, though they weren't on display.  They were behind the books and found by my curious teenage self accidentally one day. It was good to grow up with parents I could actually imagine being intimate enough to conceive me. I was lucky. Most of my friends couldn't. 

As I read my Mum's diaries I began to get to know her as a woman who enjoyed sexual release and fulfilment. She was also one who wasn't ashamed to get it outside her marriage.  I read about her recurring and purely sexual extra-marital relationship. One in which it's clear, my mother called the shots and he obliged her.  Looking back with new eyes at my parent's relationships, I realise that my father almost certainly had sex outside their marriage too. Wife swapping was certainly part of it and I realise now that, aged 14, I was used to babysit the other couple's children, while they had nights out. That makes me smile now.  I enjoyed babysitting and was good at it. You learn good mothering skills yourself that way. I had no idea at the time however what was really happening. My parents were certainly discrete.

I feel closer to my Mum now than I ever did as a child.  Reading her diaries has elicited a great respect for my feminist mother who was quite clearly very sex-positive in attitude. I feel a new affinity to a woman whose nurturing and caring took a while to have their effect. Being sexually adventurous doesn't stop you being a good mother. I realise now that Mum knew perfectly well about my gender confusion. As a teen I borrowed her clingy sweaters and her coats with her blessing. The same dress size, we shared jeans and a certain orange kaftan! Earlier, as a preteen child, I naively hid a pile of modified clothes underneath old toys at the back of my wardrobe.  These were jeans I had turned into skirts, cute little cut offs, shirts modified into side tie blouses, hair ribbons, kirbigrips, barrettes and some of my mother's old sandals. My Mum must have been aware of them. She also assured me that sewing wasn't sissy; lots of men were tailors and sailors in the navy had to mend their own clothes....  Now I wonder whether this was to save my embarrassment when I asked to learn. Did my illicit summer trips into the city wearing those clothes really go unnoticed when I was in my teens? While she almost certainly knew, she probably wanted to spare me censure and stigmatisation. Tentatively asking me if I was Gay was the nearest we got to discussing my gender dysphoria.

People comment now on the marked resemblance between me and my mother.  They recognise the same facial features and something of her attitudes and life philosophies.  I'm flattered. For a child who was pronounced her baby boy at birth, it is lovely to hear and validating to acknowledge the truth of their comparisons. Even so, I'm not wholly like her. I have a deeply satisfying sexual relationship and don't feel the need to find it outside my marriage. What I owe to my Mum is my unwillingness to stigmatise those who do. Some of my friends are poly-amorous, they have more than one love and for all I know, my mother was the same. I realise now that my work as an adult glamour model wouldn't shock my mother either, neither would the lives of any other friends who work elsewhere in the sex industry. 

Later in my teens, I shocked teachers and my school debate team mates by giving an address on legalising pornography. My Mum helped me prepare my well researched case with evidence and facts.  She herself had argued for the legalisation of prostitution to protect the girls who's work it is. It was a lesson well learned. My mother never publicly avowed me as her daughter though she raised me as one. She did so because she acknowledged, loved and respected the girl within me.  She also gave me the sexual confidence to hold my own in a relationship and to thrive as a woman. That was so important in what is still a patriarchal society. I am so indebted to her. 

There is much talk and silliness about whether Trans women are actually women. Of course they are. If my mother could accept me as the girl I am, so can my sisters. To deny a girl her upbringing and shared experiences is to divide and exclude. Exclusion isn't part of the feminism I embrace, nor should it be part of anyone else's.

HUGGS, Jane xx

Thursday, April 27, 2017

A Plea for the Unconventional

Last Saturday I attended the Hand-fasting of two lovely friends, Paula and Maria.  It was an unconventional and beautiful Celtic ceremony. It took place within a magic circle of strewn flowers. Once there, the couple pledged their love as soul friends, for all eternity, not simply 'until death us do part'.  Deeply romantic and touching, it was a privilege to witness and to celebrate. I have only ever known Paula as herself.  The couple had been already married for fifteen years and have a wonderful family who were also closely involved in the ceremony. This was however, Paula's first ceremony of commitment to Maria who likewise vowed hers too. The couple both wore Mediaval dresses. The piece de resistance was the gorgeous yet unusual black cake pictured above.

My first marriage was to another woman.  It was annulled.  In the UK, before same sex marriage became law, you could not be married to someone of the same sex.  In 2013, I married again, yet essentially for the first time in view of the annulment. This time I married someone of the opposite sex.  It was a conventional white wedding with my groom and his groomsmen in suits and myself in a beautiful white gown attended by bridesmaids in navy blue dresses. We had a white cake with pretty, navy blue ribbons. 

It set me thinking about convention and the unconventional as well as its relevance to being Trans. How different is a 'Trans marriage' to any other? Why does convention rule our lives so much? Does any of this matter?

I grew up desperate to fit in and be conventional.  This wasn't a whim or a wish, it was a desperate necessity.  When you get bullied incessantly at school for being small, having a hiigh pitched voice and behaving like a girl, you tend to get your head kicked in....often.  I had my face scarred over my left eye and two of my front teeth smashed in and broken. Today, there's an uneven line to my left eyebrow and some of my teeth are bridged and capped (I sort out my eyebrow now by careful plucking and having a fringe). You imagine that if you could be like everyone else they would allow you a normal life. It isn't any surprise then that I just wanted to be accepted as a girl like all my friends, meet a man I liked, fall in love, get married and live a conventional life in the suburbs with two kids, and a dog. I would have been so happy with obscurity. Conventional seemed liked such a lovely idea.

After growing up, I'm still unconventional whether I like it or not. Conventionally married I may be, yet I live on a 45' houseboat in a city centre marina. I run a quirky little coffee business from an Italian Coffee cart.  I'm a glamour model, sex-positive feminist and also a naturist.  As a result, I still get pigeonholed as variously 'hipster', 'trendy lefty', 'pervert', 'freak', 'weird' or worse. Like so many of my community, I'm still coping with stigma and pressure to 'fit in'.

This is the way that convention can be used to shame us. Even worse, it can also be utilised to coerce and 'cure' us. Dr Joseph Berger, a Gender expert and one time affiliate of the National Association for Research and Therapy for Homosexuality, advocates exactly this approach with transgender children:

"I suggest, indeed, letting children who wish go to school in clothes of the opposite sex - but not counselling other children to not tease them or hurt their feelings.

"On the contrary, don't interfere, and let the other children ridicule the child who has lost that clear boundary between play-acting at home and the reality needs of the outside world.

"Maybe, in this way, the child will re-establish that necessary boundary."

For some reason, being beaten up at school didn't cure me, instead it made me clinically depressed, anxious, suicidal and crushed.

Don't get me wrong.  I'm not shaming conventionality. Convention can be beautiful. My lovely wedding would please most people, especially my finally 'settling down' with a husband.  I enjoyed it too.  I happened to find that particular convention useful.  I wanted to sincerely demonstrate my commitment to my husband and my love for him.  It so happened that my very public marriage ceremony allowed me to do that. My Trans status and my glamour modelling has however been used to shame me.  It isn't conventional (and some would argue 'not right') that someone designated a boy at birth should strive to be an educator and a woman. It is held (by some) to be unacceptable for an educator also to have a separate job as a model and to be a naturist.  On so many occasions I have been ordered or instructed to follow convention like 'everyone else' or be excluded.  This is actually no better than the bullies who scarred me and broke my teeth. Those who do it align themselves unwittingly with the likes of Dr. Berger above.

I look around at the customers who patronise my coffee cart and not one of them is conventional.  One of the pleasures of being an Indie pop-up coffee business is getting to know your repeat customers. Superficially conventional, they all have interesting aspects to their lives, some tragic, some amazing.  Conventionality is a myth.  These people are wonderful in their quirks, idiosyncrasies, flaws, talents, imperfections and feelings.  They are human and beautiful. Being Trans is just one more quirk in that wonderful world of difference. Taking your clothes off in front of the camera is another.

My 'Trans' marriage is based on love.  Two people eternally committed to each other, living, working and sleeping together, having sex and having fun.  It is no different from anyone else's marriage. Neither is Paula and Maria's. There is a huge danger in expecting people to conform to labels or categories.  They focus on hairline cracks in the grand scheme of things which disappear if you focus on the commonalities. What we all share and have in common is way more important than distinguishing marks.  Unique features help us greet people appropriately but they aren't a sort code.

More than anything, conventionality is not an excuse for you to feel better about yourself, to put others down or to make you feel smug and self-satisfied.  It certainly isn't a justification to exclude, bully or shame anyone.  It is no reason to be jealous either.  If you secretly envy others who are different or adventurous, you can always branch out and live a little.  You have one life, live it! Preferably as you always wanted to. Be prepared however to let others do exactly the same. This is not a license to do whatever you damn well want, simply an OK to be wholly yourself.

Huggs, Jane xx

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Jig-saw puzzles and Therapy


I've already spoken of Janet, my childhood friend from Infant School (Kindergarten).  Two rather lonely children, we used to enjoy sharing jig-saw puzzles in school.  The puzzles were old.  Some had tatty boxes, some were simply a bundle of pieces in a plastic bag. As we struggled to build a complete picture, there were many challenges.  We would share the work, each trying to build little islands of pieces which fit together, giving part of the whole.  If there was a box, we might have some idea of what the puzzle represented.  Sometimes, the pieces were in the wrong box entirely, a picture of a dog might actually turn out to be a cat. When jig-saws were dismantled rapidly they might end up getting mixed: The worst case scenario was to work with two incomplete puzzles in an anonymous bag; a ship and a castle maybe. That was a frantically frustrating experience. Much later, as an Early Years teacher myself, I would stay behind after school trying vainly to sort such messes out!

Building a jig-saw without access to the full picture depends on guesswork. Not knowing what something is supposed to be means you can't pre-judge the outcome.  Working with the wrong picture entirely means you may go frantic trying to make sense of pieces that don't fit. Assembling a mixture of pieces means that there is no satisfying outcome. The result at best is two partial pictures which defy anyone's expectations.  The result can be at times funny or saddening depending on your outlook. Funny because the juxtaposition of two mismatched images looks crazy, saddening because things aren't as you want them to be.

Before my transition, casual acquaintances thought they knew me: an Early Years Teacher, stay at home parent, trainee counsellor, educator, kind, empathic, listening, approachable and without doubt, a man. Some of these described only parts of me, the last didn't describe me at all.

To my mother, my closest friends and partner, I was an anxious, often depressive individual, possibly Gay, maybe bi-sexual, creative, unconventional and easily hurt. To my youngest daughter I was always her Mum and friend, to my eldest I was her inspiration and intellectual sparring partner.  To my father, I was assumed to be his son. There were so many expectations, so many pictures to match the pieces. I grew up with a very confused idea of who I was, torn between who I felt inside and what others expected me to be. Counsellors call those expectations 'conditions of worth': a child strives to meet them in order to receive love. It doesn't help you get to know yourself, if anything it frustrates and confounds that process.

Nobody knows everything about themselves. Counsellors use a familiar illustrative concept to help explore their client's sense of self. The 4 panes of the Johari Window explain how patchy and unreliable our self knowledge can be. For those of us in the trans community, so much can be kept hidden. To complicate matters further, what is open is not always genuine either, much like a jig-saw in the wrong box. As for our blind spots and the murky depths of our unknown, these are difficult areas for most Trans individuals. Many of us have spent years trying to conform and have almost come to believe the illusion ourselves.  I was no exception. 

For transsexual women and others with gender identity issues, the journey toward greater self awareness can be a long one. I spent four years in therapy trying to establish my gender identity. Even exploring that open area was like navigating a minefield.  I had to contend with how others thought they saw me, as male, female, gay, bisexual or non-binary. As I started on my journey, others were very keen to volunteer their opinion on who I was too.  Many were sure that I was transsexual and would soon want hormone therapy and surgery.  Others who had known me longer wanted to claim me as a TV or CD.  Gay friends tried to persuade me that I was simply a Gay guy in denial. Some unkind feminists told me I was mentally ill man who was out to mutilate and destroy myself. Only the first was accurate.

I was lucky to have an excellent help from my psychosexual therapist, Martin Riley.  It was his suggestion that I write this blog in the first place.  The first 70 blogposts encapsulated the content of our therapy sessions and the insights they unearthed. I found myself, for the first time, in a safe space where I could explore my upbringing, my conditions of worth mentioned above and the feelings I had been unwilling to deal with.  It is all there in my blog.  Exploring the past and present, therapy also gives you the tools to continue that journey toward self actualisation.  That is one reason I've kept blogging, even after my transition was complete.

When I began therapy, I was on the run from 3 failed suicide attempts and in a depressed, 'gotta get outa here' state.  Others had successfully convinced me that the only way out was GRS. I was almost obsessive and compulsive in my quest for hormone therapy and surgery. My therapist encouraged me to quietly throw all that aside. From then on, I began to calmly unpick who I really was.  He quite rightly pointed out that if I wasn't a woman now, no amount of surgery would ever make me one.  Surgery is confirming, not reassigning, 'swapping' or changing. Indeed, nobody can make a woman out of a man if she is not already intrinsically female. Surgery in such cases would be a huge mistake and mutilation indeed.

Those of you who have followed this blog from the beginning will realise that I've always been a girl whether I chose to admit it or not.  I was brought up by a loving attentive Mum who saw the girl in me but kept her own counsel. Society was unaccepting of Trans individuals and I was protected by well meaning parents from hate they thought I would experience.  I made my own way through childhood with much pain and through my teens with even more.  Small, slight, high voiced, androgynously dressed, I picked my way through life, miserably unconfident and hating the bits of me that didn't fit.  I lived in my head most the time, always a girl. An attempt to fit in with the gay community back in the day failed miserably, as did marrying another girl. Some positives emerged like motherhood and a career as a kindergarten teacher but they were all poisoned by my being perceived as a man.

I'm lucky to be a happily married woman now and mother to four kids.  It's been a long time since all those angst ridden years. I've lived almost 40% of my adult life as the woman I am now Paradoxically, I've been female my whole life.  In the process of understanding that, I've learned an important lesson. It is all too easy to think you know yourself and make to huge mistakes. It is even easier to pontificate about who you believe others are and what their destiny is.  You don't know and can't know.  It is dangerous to suggest that you do, sometimes hurtful and always misleading. People are unique, not all of a piece.  It is dangerous to apply labels like transsexual, gay, TV or CD without thought. With help from a skilled therapist, individuals do have a fighting chance of discovering who they really are.  They can't be 'told', they have to find out in a safe place where they can cope with their discoveries. I'm so lucky I got that chance.

I have said it before, but it is worth repeating.  I am not an inspiration or an icon to be admired and followed. I am simply me. If what I share seems familiar, it may be a pattern to follow.  If so, do it carefully and still take time to discover the real you.  You might be transsexual but on the other hand you might be bi-gender, non-binary, gay, a TV or CD or any combination of these things. Before ever you take hormone therapy, embark on a surgical path or anything irreversible, take counsel, get help and take good care.  

You have one life given to you, live it well.

Huggs, Jane xx

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Resurrection and Freedom, Chocolate and Inclusion

Here's hoping that you all might have some time off to enjoy a break. Happy Easter. It is also the sixth day of Passover as I write. 

Me and my husband have two blissful days off. The market we trade in generally is closed today as well as Monday. We were working till 5pm yesterday however and it was still so cold!

There's no doubt it's Spring here in Manchester though. A cormorant has taken up residence, fishing on the Marina. The geese, in pairs are so noisy right now. The swans are nesting on an island in the lake and a pair of goldfinches were seen by the nest boxes in the lane. The cowslips are out and the bats have started flying out in the evening. Love is in the air, passion, new life in the freedom of the outdoors.

Easter and Passover are religious festivals. Though there's a religious basis to the holiday, the retail focus here in the UK is largely chocolate and sweets. You can't escape it, there is never any shortage. I've too have served a good deal of delicious hot chocolate recently, sweet indulgent coffees with fragrant syrups and offered pain chocolat to my customers. 'Naughty but nice' is often used to describe them. It's also a phrase we use for taboo sexual indulgence too. Sinful or not? Some would say were conceived in sin. Does that make sex sinful? I'm a chocolate addict myself, I love good coffee, I see no harm in a little pleasurable indulgence but then I see no sin or harm in consensual, joyful sex either. I also see no harm in someone's sexual choices, their sexual expression, orientation or gender identity. Not everyone sees things this way. 

It is nearing the end of Passover and the Easter break. Unlike the Christian message of resurrection, Passover is, in essence about celebrating freedom. It is a message I'm taking to heart this year. Like others, I've watched in horror as in Chechnya Gay men have been rounded up, killed or placed in concentration camps. It made me think about freedom.

Passover recalls the flight from Egypt of the Jewish people and the regaining of freedom; freedom from slavery. The U.K. doesn't have slavery but freedom isn't exactly equal even now.  You are free to be openly Trans or Gay but don't expect to enjoy quite the same rights as others.  Some may feel compelled to complain about you, attack you, call you names or find ways of excluding you from jobs, deny your right to be male or female or bizarrely, to use toilets. In spite of inequalities however, I'm left, once again, reflecting that I'm lucky to live in here Western Europe. In many countries I would not even be recognized as a woman and my marriage to my husband Mart would be not certainly not be legal. 

Let's celebrate the freedoms we have, fight hard to maintain them but also campaign for more. Trans people will only be truly free when we have a society that includes everyone and celebrates difference. 

Much love and peace this Passover and Easter, 

HUGGS Jane xx

Sent from my iPhone

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Slut-shaming, Sex, Empowerment and Body Positivity

A number of us were approached recently to make an artistic statement.  Artist, Tim Illife has invited contributions to a large art installation touring a venues across the border in Wales. The exhibition will consist of a number of boxes representing the state or contents of contributors' minds.

Should I contribute even if anonymously? The request stirred up all sorts of thoughts, many painful. I am not Welsh though I am a Welsh speaker.  A native of Leeds, now living in Manchester, I turned my back on Wales last year and permanently relocated to Manchester. A trans-historied, sex positive woman, I left because of judgement and stigma around my gender identity as well as slut shaming because of my lifestyle. It was a wrench. My husband, who came with me, is Welsh, my children were born and still live in Wales, I lived and worked there as an educator too.

Manchester with its Gay Village, Pride, Hipster community and progressive city attitudes is a far cry from rural Wales. The acceptance I enjoy in MCR is unattainable where I once lived: Possibly a mix of misplaced religious disapprobation and small minded conservatism are to blame but I'm still not sure.  What remains is that, by some, I'm a considered either a freak or a slut where I once lived and a happily married woman and mother where I live now. This is not a Welsh problem, but a whole world one. I'm sharing my thoughts with you now, so why not in art? Here goes.

Sex positivity is not about having lots of sex, it isn't about unlimited one night stands and free love: It is about openness; female empowerment; joyful, consensual, sexual enjoyment and a woman's right to celebrate her own body. It is about portraying her body as beautiful and not shameful. Slut shaming can involve judgement about the length of a woman's skirt, her sexuality and lifestyle or her choice of a career in the sex industry. There are many more examples but the intention is always the same, to control women and to limit their sexuality though systematic, emotional abuse. So if you are into threesomes, swinging or work as a porn model or stripper, and it gets known, you can forget any chance of a 'responsible' job. You can also expect, censure and maybe even professional investigation. Beware, you will endure this in spite of breaking no law and harming nobody. Men who do these things are considered (with a wry smile) as 'a bit of a lad'. They get acknowledgement of sexual prowess in descriptions like 'stud' and 'stallion'. Women like me are simply demeaned as 'cheap sluts'. There is no equality in slut shaming.

I have suffered all of these things and made the decision to move on. Previously called 'freak', 'offence against nature' and a slut, my right to work as an educator was questioned. Latterly, as a model I have been treated with respect for being an empowered woman.  As a female entrepreneur too I have been acknowledged for being an innovator and a contributor to society. Which is right? It seems that the answer depends on geography and varying societal attitudes. While some of us revere Madonna, Amber Rose, Lady Gaga and Black Chyna for their confident sexuality, others see them as shocking examples of poor morals.

My thought box then is spilling over with all of these things. It is pictured above. Sewn with a pair of my panties, covered in insults, yet also empowering statements, it represents the turmoil of some of the recent past and my current self-affirmation.

Huggs, Jane xx

Friday, March 31, 2017

Making the Hidden Visible - Imaginary Playmates, Trans Visibility and Sex Positivism

The picture above is me: out proud, sexy, unashamed, posing on a wall looking carefree and happy. I'm Trans-historied. My gender status is legally female. The photo was taken by my husband who is legally married to me here in the UK. Gay and Trans rights are so much better now than before. Indeed some question whether we still need to campaign and fight for them. I've even wondered so myself.

I grew up as a child with a secret, imaginary group of playmates.  So many kids have imaginary friends.  They provide a platform for rehearsing and exploring experiences outside the child's own. Lonely children find a companion that comforts them whether it be a friend or an animal.  It's all in your head.  When you're a Trans child, you live in your head.  The life you lead bears no resemblance to the one you need in order to help you thrive.  Little girls crave other girls to play with, I did too. Until I went to school it was Julie, the girl across the road. When I started school, that had to change. Boys are supposed to play ball with other boys, not skipping with the girls. Julie and I didn't play together after that. I made friends with Janet, another lonely soul in the playground but then her family moved away. Then I too became a loner, living inside my head with Janet and Julie living on as my imaginary playmates. Teachers told my Mum, with concern, that I was withdrawn and unsociable. Unknown to them, my imaginary life, though invisible to others, sustained me and held me up.  Looking back, the imaginary experiences are the ones I cherish most. They helped me keep the faith in who I was and develop as I needed to be.

As I write, today marks Transgender Day of Visibility (TDOV). TDOV aims to promote acceptance of Trans people, safeguarding their rights and combatting hatred. Hatred relies on stereotyping groups of people and on self-limiting mindsets.  Too often these are fuelled by a press whose prevalent view of a Trans person is 'a man in a dress'. The woman inside is cruelly willed into forced invisibility. The man on the outside is seen as a fake to be condemned or ridiculed.

Ironically, more often than not I AM 'invisible' these days. Running a barista coffee business means that I am 'that smiley, happy girl who makes such nice coffee'. Apparently invisible in plain sight, an attractive woman working alongside her husband, I'm where I always wanted to be as a child. I'm simply a woman. 

Growing up I had, ironically, longed to be an ordinary girl like everyone else, blend in and be unexceptional. I was the boy who wanted to grow up and be a Mum and a wife, not a pilot or a policeman. I viewed the bullying and hatred I received as being my fault.  Becoming invisible seemed the way forward.

Even though I craved invisibility years ago, I can see now what a dangerous place it is.  You are benignly invisible if you stick to the rules and accept the norms that society demands. Step outside them and you are faced with a choice: Make yourself invisible again or make yourself scarce. An adult living in a conservative rural area, I rapidly discovered those norms were very restrictive indeed.  Step outside them, dare to be visible and you are a target. Those norms don't just exclude transgenders: A 'man in a dress' lies on a par with a woman who wears short skirts and low necklines; who owns her sexuality and sexual choices; who admits to enjoying sex and is willing to talk about it or who works in the porn industry.

As well as being a Trans-historied woman I am also a sex positive feminist. Sex positivism arose as a reaction against anti-pornography feminism. Slut shaming those who work in the porn industry relies on the flawed, patriarchal notion that sex is something that men enjoy and which women provide. A women however should be free to enjoy sex on her own terms in a mutual, consensual way. I believe that sexual choices should be a woman's own.  She should never be shamed, stigmatised or judged for them. She should be respected as an equal partner in a joyful act that is an inherent part of our adult lives. If she chooses to model and celebrate her bodily beauty that is her decision. If she chooses to be celibate, that too is her choice. Sex positivism is not about lots of sex but about open discourse and the removal of stigma from sexual choices. However, if you air ideas like that in a provincial, semi-rural community, you get branded a slut.

Being invisible with either gender identity or sex positivism then, involves hiding aspects of yourself.  When we hide we get smaller, shrink into ourselves and become islands in an uncaring sea.  It is a dismal place to be.  More importantly, invisibility breeds ignorance in others.  Our Trans or Positivist invisibility allows others to pretend there is bland homogeneity and that diversity in sex or gender is deviance. It also prevents others seeing they are not alone.

I am lucky. I live and work now in one of the most vibrant, sexually accepting, gay friendly cities in Europe.  Manchester is full of tolerance and acceptance. I can walk reasonably safely, hand in hand with my bi-gender partner when she presents as a woman. My city hosts the UK's national Gay radio station and one of the largest Prides. There is a safe zone in the form of the Gay Village where I can party. Our Lord Mayor is proudly and openly Gay and I live in one of the hippest, coolest parts of town. From outer space however it is a tiny rainbow on a huge grey background. As President Trump begins to erode Gay rights in the US, Putin stifle them in Russia and other countries kill and imprison Gays, you begin to see that rainbow fade. 

The woman in the picture above would need to cover up to please so many people, even though it would stop her keeping cool. She is still considered a man in many countries, her marriage to her husband is not legally recognised. Today, visibility for sexual orientation, gender and sexual freedom is more needed than ever. 

Hugs, Jane xx