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 Teachers told my Mum, with concern, that I was withdrawn and unsociable.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

Friday, March 24, 2017

First Dance

 


With a political mother and an engineer father, I frequently got taken to official functions with dancing.  Dancing at such formal occasions invariably meant ballroom social dances. Trans girls have a problem.  If you learn any dances, they teach you to lead. Lead tends to be associated with males. Ballroom can seem like a rather patriarchal dance style where men show off their lady, hold her and guide her. She wears a cocktail dress, he wears a suit. It's an area of life, like school uniform, where gender differences are deeply polarised. 

My mother loved to dance and as a teen I grew up wanting to dance too. I learned to social cha-cha and waltz but little more.  I seldom had a partner and when I did it felt awkward: Dancing lead came about as naturally as wearing a shirt, tie and trousers. In other words, not. For a girl who grew up making her own dresses and skirts in secret it hurt to even try to lead. I sometimes used to practise the girl's steps alone in my room. All from memory. It just felt lonely and sad. As for weddings, I had been taken to them too, watching wistfully the Bride and Groom took their first romantic dance.  The idea that that the Bride might one day be me was a total fantasy and I knew tearfully well it was never going to happen.

Trans Brides to Be can therefore be less than prepared when it comes to their own wedding. My eight month engagement was spent frantically learning to Salsa, Mambo and Merengue. Why did nobody tell me that dancing felt so good for a girl? Next to sex it is one of the most satisfying, exhilarating things you can do with your partner. 

Social salsa is traditionally danced and styled closer than ballroom.  It can be close and flirtatious if you wish but at the heart of it are those little hand, arm and wrist movements from your lead. He directs you. In hold you need to know where he wants you to go, what he wants you to do and what he has decided to do with you next.  His hand communicates that to you. He makes the rules and you follow, styling your moves to suit his wishes but also to have fun.  My mother brought me up a feminist. I have her to thank that I became a strong, confident albeit rather lonely woman. Salsa opened up a whole new world for me, learning to trust my partner, anticipate his wishes and let him make the decisions.  Anyone who has danced Salsa will tell you you're courting disaster if the girl tries to lead her guy.

So after all the beautiful banqueting, the sparkling wine, the wedding breakfast and the heartwarming speeches came the evening reception and dancing.  Traditionally, the Bride sits there looking beautiful during the Wedding Breakfast.  She says almost nothing. After being the centre of attention and having so much to say during the ceremony, it is a blessed relief! I got up briefly to speak (a little emotionally) about missing my parents but otherwise I kept to tradition and just smiled. Who could blame me if it was mainly at the amazing man who had just become my husband.

There was time to chill after the wedding breakfast, time to retreat to the Bridal suite, kiss, love and spend time with my husband...There was also time to be nervous about that first dance.  All those eyes on you, that choreography, the desire to look like the perfect couple....The first time we had danced together was late at night, on board ship somewhere between England and Belgium. The onstage band played Amy Winehouse's 'Valerie'.  We freestyled and the floor cleared so people could watch. It was the time I first realised 'Wow, this guy can DANCE!' We finished to a round of applause that stunned me.  So much in the zone with him, I hadn't been nervous.

As we practised during the months before the wedding, it became clear that he would need to get used to having me in a gown.  Traditionally, the groom doesn't see the wedding dress until the big day.  I guess I'm a traditional girl. I wanted to see the look on his face when I first entered the ceremony room. I wasn't disappointed. That left a problem though.  How do a couple who normally dance so close get used to the dress? I tried asking around friends to borrow a dress the same size but to no avail. We then tried dancing with me in a hoop petticoat.  It helped us to make some adjustments but it was clear that cross body leads would be particularly difficult.

The music we chose was 'Refugio de Amor' by Chayanne and Vanessa Williams, a beautiful love duet, all 5 minutes 28 seconds of it! The track begins so delicately with a lilting melody then picks up pace. By the time of the dance I was petrified.  This wasn't an impromptu, 'let's hit the dance floor' moment, you get announced and everyone watches.

I need not have worried. In the end the music took over and my deep affection for a man who truly loves and cares for me  I put myself quite literally in his hands. Dance is about trust, so important when you're in a floor length gown and heels.  You depend on him to lead you expertly and well.  He depends on you to hold your weight and balance.  Your first dance is a test of love, dependency and trust, it symbolises so much of what is to come and how you will cope.  This is not romantic nonsense, it is the essential for life with your partner and soulmate.  Without it you will trip and fall.....and we didn't.

He can remove his jacket to dance, but warning for her, dresses with layers of tulle underneath are hot to wear.  By the time we had danced more, I simply had to get outside to get cool. I recall negotiating the steps of the hotel entrance. We stood outside on Portland Street in the cool of an October city night.  It was so blissful. Totally wrapped up in each other we were barely aware of the traffic or the passers by. We have a selfie to remember it by.

And so to bed. Wedding dresses are like beautiful wrapping paper.  They take ages to put on. They also take ages to undo.  Mine laced at the back.  Once tied I couldn't unlace it myself. Your bridesmaids dress you but after that it's all down to your groom. It's traditional to leave the party early and lose yourself in each other. Why else are you getting married? Unwrapping a present is full of anticipation.  Everyone gets to see your dress but only he gets to see what is beneath.  A first dance is a metaphor for that first intimacy....or first intimacy now you're married.  Even if you have loved before, this moment is always so longed for.  Like Salsa, it involves trust and breathtaking exhilaration. It is also about the ultimate in closeness and loving; a moment your vows become a marriage. I felt well and truly married that day.

Huggs, Jane xx 

Friday, March 17, 2017

A Cinderella Story



Someone once told me that if you look back on a defining moment and it still brings emotion, it was, and is, the real deal.  Life is full of those moments; birth, coming of age, first love, first sex, your first child and if you're a #girlikeus, transition. Marriage is one of those too. At birth we are intensely bombarded with sensations we never remember. In giving birth we are forever changed, creating new life and accepting the responsibility it brings. Marriage creates something new too. The transition from 'before' to 'after' in all these events creates watershed divisions, changing us for ever and determining our next steps.

No wonder that as girls growing up, we dream of what marriage might bring.  As a teen, we dream of white weddings and happy ever afters. At least I did. I had been to enough weddings as a child to be captivated by the whole process; the romance and the fairytale wonder.  The stories you read growing up are interlaced and woven with this golden thread. Indeed, so many fairytales end with the girl marrying her Prince and becoming a Princess. The Big White Wedding becomes a star on the horizon, something we long for, something we get to if we're especially lucky.

As a girl, I always envied any friend who got chosen to be a flower girl, or even, a bridesmaid. A pretty dress and a supporting role in the proceedings, a posy of flowers and a photographic smile...was I just being shallow? If they mistakenly class you as a boy at birth, these things take on a different perspective.  There will never be any of those, never, not in a million years, not in a million tears. Not only will you never be a bridesmaid, you won't be a bride either.  This isn't a matter of being left on the shelf...you're just the wrong gender entirely. End of dreams, end of hopes. Put those wedding dress designs in the bin girl, because you're a boy. Suck it up. Even fairytale magic can't fix that one. There was never going to be a Cinderella ending. The average Fairy Godmother would fall about laughing at the very idea. 

Two days ago, walking down Oldham Street, Manchester with my husband, I popped into Smart City Tailors.  I needed a quote to have my wedding dress cleaned. I marvel that this short paragraph still belongs to the same life, so much has changed.

I've never actually blogged about my wedding day.  Some have asked, but in the heady whirl following my marriage there wasn't much time.  Let's do it now. Was it all my childhood dreams had hoped for? I'd like to unpick that and decide.

Every girl's wedding is different, each bride has her own perspective. Mine was one of lying awake, sharing a room with Sharon, one of my bridesmaids and desperately missing the man I was about to marry. I had planned the day to come for eight months and, in a way, for a whole lifetime. Every last thing was sorted. I hadn't expected to be sleepless the night before!

I think all brides have a whirlwind morning, mine was no different: Breakfast made especially and brought to my room, Josie, my stylist rushing in late to put my hair in pretty curls.  I took ages doing my own makeup. There were visits from my bridesmaids, friends and the photographer. I remember the Best Man checking I was okay and fetching sandwiches I couldn't eat; flowers arriving and looking more beautiful than I had ever imagined; being tightly laced into my dress by two of my bridesmaids, Julie and Karen.  There were quieter times and frenetic ones, frenzied even, when the dress lacing took scarily long. The things which stand out however were the touching and the humorous: the moment my bridesmaids presented a beautiful necklace to me; the quiet time with my cousin Geoff as he took tasteful boudoir shots; practising walking in the corridor with my chief bridesmaid Gillian, trying not to trip on the hem of my dress.

All Brides have these experiences I suspect but their thoughts and emotions are unique.  I kept trying to comprehend the impossible was about to happen.  I couldn't help pondering the improbability of it all and the possibility I might never have made it.  Those of you who have read this blog will know the low moments, moments when the lights went out, the suicidal thoughts, the despair and almost giving up. I was painfully aware too of how much I missed my husband to be.  Feeling tearfully separated from your man on your wedding morning is there to ensure one thing; how desperately you love him. Having that magnetic longing to make one life of two is what your wedding symbolises. I had no idea though how intensely emotional that separation could feel.

For that reason alone, standing at the entrance of the wedding suite, linked in my cousin's arm, was a defining moment, one of acute, intense longing.  When I heard the first strain's of Craig Armstrong's Portuguese Love theme, I began to shed tears. As I walked up the aisle the music gathered momentum.  Two minutes in, the music reaches a crescendo then relaxes into quiet happiness. It was the moment we met again, met with everyone's gaze upon us. As I reached my bridegroom and looked in his eyes I saw his emotion too and incredible relief.  He was crying just like me. Defining moments came thick and fast right then. I came to realise high emotion is distilled from them.

So many words are spoken as you give yourself to the man you love.  My husband generally has problems shutting me up (usually by forcibly kissing me). This time I had to wait for my kiss. There are the legally required words first but to me those below were some of the most important I had to say:

"There was darkness for a long time and then there was light, and that light was you. Your love has given me wings, and our journey begins today. I pledge before this assembled company to be your wife from this day forward. Let us make of our lives one life. I want you for today, tomorrow and forever."

For those of you who are #girlslikeus, you will have known that darkness too and the despair that accompanies it.  If there is a lesson here, it is never to give up hope. One day, it will, get better, trust me.

Walking out of the ceremony room to Craig Armstrong's PM's Love Theme, felt the most affirming moment ever. It was WITH my new husband, as HIS wife. No Mrs Jane Williams has ever felt the carpet so cushiony soft beneath her feet.

And yes, to answer my own question, It was all my childhood dreams had wished for; that and much much more.

Like our married life, this was the beginning of a joyful journey and the start of a wonderful day.  There is more to share with you; precious moments that serve as latches for thoughts and emotions. If you wish, come back and read about them them in my next blogpost.

Huggs, Jane xx

Note: For those of you who weren't there, the music mentioned is all from the film: 'Love Actually', the dress was by D'Arcy Scott and you can see the shared photos of the wedding here at: https://www.icloud.com/sharedalbum/B0S5VaUrglwaz

  


Thursday, March 16, 2017

Giovanna and the Magic Beans



Sounds like a fairytale doesn't it? Well sometimes, just maybe, life is a fairytale, or as miraculous as one.  Fairytales are often characterised by enormous changes of fortune, dramatic changes of destiny with the bonus (of course) of a happy ending. The Trans Community however, are not renowned for enjoying 'happy ever afters'.  Life can seem incredibly tough sometimes with no let up on public censure, judgement and public condemnation.  We've all had our share.

Observing me in my former workplace, a  friend once observed how I seemed not to hear the whispers and the talking behind my back.  'I do the same', she said. 'Sometimes you just don't want to hear.' She is a lesbian, barely out at work except to those she knows will accept and understand.  She works alongside her partner. It's a raw deal that no het couple would have to put up with.  She is such a determined and courageous lady. 

I mentioned in a previous post that condemnation at work had become too much. I needed a fairy godmother or at least a good friend.  Enter Giovanna.  The magic, so essential to fairy tales, lies in the centre of her name.  She's a van; quirky, Italian, stylish, different (3 wheels) and her direction comes from her creative left side (she's left hand drive). Giovanna is my co-worker alongside Mart, my amazing husband.  Giovanna may be petite but she has the capability of making excellent coffee.  With an espresso machine, a burr grinder, a fridge and a water tank, she has all she needs to help me serve my customers.

Myself, Giovanna and Mart run the UK's first Transgender Mobile Barista business.  As I have a background in waitressing and restaurant work she was also the magic I needed to convert a handful of brown beans into delicious lattes, flat whites, americanos, cappucinos, espressos and much much more. I have always been passionate about good coffee, chocolate and tea lattes, crazy about street food and fed up with being put down, marginalised and excluded.

When I was a girl, my mother, Rose Spencer, used to tell me the story of Michael Marks. My great grandmother was Jewish and my mother never forgot her roots.  She was brought up in Dewsbury and worked in Leeds.  I was born and brought up in Calderdale. I found Marks' story deeply inspirational. A Jewish emigre, used to exclusion, marginalisation, put downs and racism, he went it alone and began to sell goods on a market stall in Leeds to make a living. In a trend not dissimilar to modern 'pound shops', everything on his stall cost a penny.  I believe he famously exhorted his customers not to bother asking the price...'It's a Penny!'  Marks went on to open stalls at markets throughout the West Riding of Yorkshire.  He took on Tom Spencer as his business partner and the rest is history.

So, I in my turn became a market stall trader.  Setting up on the opposite side of the Pennine hills in Manchester UK, myself, Giovanna and my husband Mart, run our own business, Northern Grind.  I began by selling £1 coffees to attract customers.  My pop-up barista business is my start-up in a refusal to let others control my life in a job I detested and where I got hated. If you plan on flying into or out of Manchester airport (next door) or are shopping in Wythenshawe, please pop in and see us.  Come and meet Giovanna and sample our coffees.  If coffee isn't your thing, why not try our Airport Fog Latte made from Earl Grey, Vanilla and velvety steamed milk...we'd love to serve you.

So here's raising a Latte glass to the future, to Jewish entrepreneurs past and present and to Market Stall start-ups everywhere,

Huggs, Jane xx

A Eulogy for Star


Here was my daughter's eulogy for Star, mentioned in the previous blogpost.  It needs no further introduction so here it is:

"Star was a beloved family member. I know we are very sad that he has moved on. 

He will always be remembered as a loving fluffy feral cat. He always cheered every one up and was the best at giving cuddles.  

I have begun to realise through this grieving prosses that no matter what has happened to him, it was his time to go. I believe that Star is looking down on us grieving, wishing he could tell us to not be upset. He would want to tell us that he had gone some where else where he is happy and that he had gone on a new adventure. 

In the one of the Narnia books,'The Voyage of the Dawntreader', C.S Lewis wrote of a mouse named Reepicheep who longed to go to Aslan's country, Aslan's country representing God's country. When he finally did go to Aslan's country he was so happy. He was going on a new adventure where he did not need any kind of worry or bad things or pain that we have on earth. I think that it is the same for Star. Peter Pan also said that dying would be the greatest adventure. I have really become to believe that the people or animals that pass on are happy and that they have gone on a brilliant adventure with a wonderful time ahead of them. I also believe that animals live on in other animals. You never know, we might find Star in another cat it doesn't have to be the same markings or colours it the spirit that lives on in other cats. 

Thank you Star for letting us have wonderful times with you. Thank you for giving so much love and caring for us.

You have been the best cat, we feel so blessed that we got the chance to have you in our lives.  I hope wherever you are you are having a lot of fun and there is lots of tuna for you to eat.

I think I can say on behalf of all of us that you were loved so so much

Beth Ward"

In the LGBT community, pets can take on a huge significance, in particular when families split apart.  That pets can also heal and soothe wounds is perhaps less thought of.  Thanks Beth for what you wrote.  Here's hoping it might also bring comfort to anyone else who has lost a much loved family pet,

Hugs, Jane xx

Friday, March 10, 2017

Cycle of Life - The End of Things and New Beginnings



Change is an inevitable aspect of being Trans.  Change often involves great pain, both emotional and physical.  I've known all of these. 

I wrote in an earlier blog of The Empress; my canal barge, our home and the source of new life and creativity.  In my last post we were on the cusp of moving to live aboard her full time.  It was a change fraught with sacrifice, stress, huge gains and liberation: Moving meant change. Change to a smaller, simpler more streamlined, efficient way of life. Most of our lives are inefficient, clearly a good deal had to go!

Having found one new home, the final few days before moving saw myself and my husband hunting for many new homes: Possessions we no longer wanted; a TV, a sofa, a bed, a cooker, carpets, furnishings and much much more, needed new owners.  Having lived two parallel lives for 7 months, we already had these things in our new home. In a dwelling which is compact and concise, there is no room for superfluity or the useless. Like William Morris, we took only that which was beautiful or useful.  My feeling was that it amounted to 20% or less of what we owned. With the countdown to moving day getting more urgent, we sent out frantic calls to friends and relatives to collect what they wanted.

By the morning of Saturday 24th of February the flat still looked depressingly full. It was the last day of our tenancy.  In the final race against time to empty every last thing, carload after carload went down to the recycling centre.  It seemed a shame to sacrifice so much.  Split second decisions were made about what to keep or throw. For both of us, keepsake items like books and the purely sentimental were the hardest to see go.  There were tears, partly from frustration but also from the anguish of diminishing time and the apparent hopelessness of it all. At times it felt like watching a bath empty through a blocked drain.  That our ex flat was empty by nine o'clock that night, still seems like a miracle.  Driving back home to Manchester and permanence was bliss, even though it was early Sunday morning before we got to bed.

Permanence is a relative term. The Empress is moored to a wooden pontoon in the middle of a small lake off the Rochdale Canal.  Two mooring lines secure her but they aren't exactly fixed to dry land. Constantly alive to the wind and rippling water she is constantly in motion.  It is gentle and insistent, calming to fall sleep to and reassuring to feel. Permanence is not as solid as it seems.  The same is true of life.  Returning to Empress brought with it the death of our beloved cat Star.  Our return is always greeted by his footsteps on the pontoon, trotting along to meet us. His miaowing for food. That evening there was no greeting.

At the bottom of the companionway lay Star, as if sprawled out asleep. Hot tears and sadness came with the realisation that he had died suddenly and alone without those he loved.  Stroking his cold fur made me intensely sad.  He had been well when we left.  Memories of cuddling him and the warmth of his fur as we sat in bed in the morning were replaced by dark and cold and a huge feeling of loss. The photo above had been taken that morning. He was and is my daughter's precious kitten, a wonderful, sociable and adventurous cat.  We had cared for him for seven wonderful months aboard Empress, watched him venture further and further afield in the Marina but always aware that he was Beth's cat. He touched everyone in our family with his warmth, my daughter's partner Melanie too and my husband Mart.

Star came to live with me and my daughter shortly after I came out and began my journey.  He came as a kitten and, so we thought, a female.  A new single Mum with a vulnerable child, he was a breath of new life and a hope for a bright future.  He completed our little family of 3; an inexperienced young Mum, a 14 year old daughter and an adventurous young kitten. Our lives intertwined in ways we hardly perceived at the time.

Fast forward to a year ago. Myself and my now adult daughter had grown apart.  I know that it can happen after divorce and re-marriage, when both mothers, daughters and fathers find new partners and love again.  This is life and yet it was also my fault and my husband's.  A mother's love should be shown unconditionally.  Mine wasn't.  Failing to support an anxious daughter when she felt alone was bad enough, couple that with my newfound love for a man who didn't as yet know her well and you have a tragedy in the making. That my daughter didn't talk to me was only what I deserved.

Yesterday as I write, was Star's funeral and cremation.  Yesterday brought two grieving families together with their joint memories of a beautiful, affectionate animal. The occasion of his passing brought us together to share our sorrow and comfort one another.  It was a truly precious gift from a wonderful companion. I hope that it is a new beginning, for me especially but for our family. 

God Bless you Little Star as you begin your next big adventure..

Hugs,

Jane xx