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.