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