For Reasons of Research, I’ve been reading Downriver by Iain Sinclair recently (aside from the normal heave-ho of life, visiting the Making Nature and Electricity: The Spark of Life exhibitions at the Wellcome Institute; drinking All The Wine in the company of a skittish cat; re-acquainting myself with old drawing habits and new gym ones – and novel heave-hos in life, such as “dealing with a blood-soaked stranger”; and my personal favourite “being evacuated from the office for a bomb scare”, which was nowhere near as much fun as you’d hope).
I have a lot of Ian Sinclair books to read, because Delightful Boyfriend has inherited psychogeographical scholarship from his Colin-Wilson-reading father, and my globe-trotting book patron/occasional whip hand (Amy Parker, who has recently published a short story in Bourbon Penn magazine, which rather unusually for any short fiction written after about 1901, I’ve read and loved – please sit down and have a go yourself! It’s a good one) also deluged me in copies before I had a chance to remove them from my research wishlist and plead exhaustion (there is a reason I don’t link to that on my blog).
In reading, I encountered this intriguing quote:
There is, I assure you, a measure of safety in being the one who holds the pen. ‘I’ is the man in possession, but he is also possessed, untouchable. ‘I’ is immortal. The title of the survivor. There always has to be one witness to legitimize a massacre. [etc]
Downriver, Iain Sinclair.
Long-term readers may be aware that I have a tattoo reading “ha bloody fucking ha” prominently on my writing wrist.
It is the abbreviated form of this quote:
Why? you have to ask yourself. I think it’s a way of claiming immunity. First-person narrators can’t die, so long as we keep telling the story of our own lives we’re safe. Ha bloody fucking Ha.
The Ghost Road, Pat Barker
From a firmly-formative trilogy (one of the more respectable formative texts of my adolescence, which featured more heavily the lurid gay erotic horror of Poppy Z Brite in the vampire years and innumerable interchangeable Hardy Boys Casefiles), that of prize-draped Pat Barker: The Regeneration Trilogy.
It is a conceptual echo that concerns me greatly: I’ve been keeping a regular, if occasionally sparse or incoherent and evasive diary, since September 1997. If I am still doing it in September this year (if global rise of fascism hasn’t dispensed with my gay, trans self by then – always proviso these days), it will be a solid 20 years of diarism.
Leaving aside the horror of a diary that can legally vote, marry, drink, drive, and star in extremely depressing pornography in the country in which it is written, what have I done to my longevity with this? All of my life choices so far – dabbling in alcoholism, obesity, cocaine, transitioning even – all of them should calculatedly have shaved off decades from my genetically accursed lengthy lifespan (no bloody cancer or coronary here, alas), at least according to the bastion of scientific rigour and life-extension that is the Daily Mail. I live in a society that can’t afford my pension and soon won’t be able to feed itself. Have I unthinkingly undermined my sensible exit strategy with ego-centric nonsense?
Well, I shan’t be the first or the last. If I am still committing my life to language in another 20 years we shall know something has gone horribly, horribly right.
Earlier this month, for International Women’s Day, a friend on Facebook was making frustrated noises about an acquaintance of his who had whipped out the tiresome “BUT WHEN IS INTERNATIONAL MEN’S DAY” apparent-gotcha (it’s November the 19th, when these men mysteriously go quiet about male suicide levels, male rape victims, male domestic abuse survivors, the role of toxic masculinity in capitalism, or junk like that. Half of them don’t even use it as an opportunity to talk about cis-centric but well-meant topics like prostate/testicular cancer, for God’s sake); I tried to cheer him up by pointing out how angry the guy will be when he discovers greedy, greedy trans people have TWO international days! TWO! One to remind cis people we exist, and one to remind cis people that THEY KEEP FUCKING MURDERING US.
[Trans Day of Remembrance is also in November. Fairly close to International Men’s Day, in fact. Last year rather cruelly gifted me with someone to add to the list for the Day of Remembrance; I owe him a lot, and one of the best things I can think of to do is to pass on his assurances to others like him and like me].
It’s not all murder and toilets and gate-keeping insurance-providers and places where your actual existence as a human being is illegal, although those things do rather play on the mind (nothing so refreshing as needing a piss and having to wonder if you’re about to die from it in the literal, rather than figurative sense). It’s not even all continual rejection from people who are Absolutely Fucking Obsessed With Genitals and sudden, self-made (and wrong) experts on chromosomes.
[at point of taking, that’s 13 months on testosterone & 5 months after surgery]
I mean, my life has 100% improved since I stopped pretending I was ever going to Female Correctly. Side-effects have included health! Fitness! Confidence! Abandoning the need to check with other people whether I was allowed to like things, think things, believe things, or walk or talk a certain way! No longer shrivelling up like a dried plum in company! Finally making eye-contact! Enjoying being alive! Not constantly fixating on death.
Years ago I used to write regular blog entries acknowledging Self-Harm Awareness Day (March 1st), because, well, I did a lot of it. Continuously, from about 11 years old, until my early thirties, I hacked up parts of my body with a variety of sharp implements. There are scars everywhere as a result, from calves to face. Some people find them disturbing; some of them are very prominent.
There are lot of people I’d like to see change their position; there’s no arguing with some of them (committed TERFs who want to shout about “mutilating your female body” or whatever their bio-essentialist nonsense is this week; the creepy few of the cis lesbian world who feel entitled to any body born with a vagina but somehow angrily rebel against lesbian trans women who’ve had vaginoplasty; extremely paranoid cis gay men who are unnecessarily fixated on dick; homophobic & transphobic straight cis women convinced they’re being “lied to” because a trans man genders himself correctly; The Daily Fucking Mail, etc), but to the salvageable…
Cis men, straight or otherwise: please, if you think your masculinity isn’t tied to your noodle and nobbles (and it shouldn’t be, or you’ll have about forty crises all at once if you get fucking testicular cancer or the like, as a mate of mine did at 16), try to consider your feelings towards trans men. If there are cis men you admire for their masculinity or their achievements & trans men have managed the same kind of shit, your feeling should be the same. And yes while transitioning is hard for us it… actually needn’t be. There should be no fear involved, no terrifying social and bodily risk; so “these dudes are really brave” shouldn’t be the basis of your admiration, either. Jumping out of a burning building into shark-infested waters isn’t brave: we do it to save our lives. Making sure we don’t land in the fucking shark-infested water, to labour the metaphor, would be the sane and upstanding thing to do. Make that courage unnecessary by making it clear you already view trans men as men and admire at least some of us for the same goddamn reasons you admire any other men.
On the 19th of October 2016 I kissed goodbye to some moderate nuisances which have dogged my life since around 1994, and my internal life has settled from boiling discomfort to “mild simmer” for about the first time since then.
Over the course of the twin hells of bureaucracy and second-puberty that make up transition (see here for the heartfelt story of this nonsense), which has also involved an almost too-late-in-life conversion to the notion of Actually Exercising after building a firm and stroppy identity around Never Exercising Because The Sooner Death Comes The Better, I’ve had several unpleasant revelations.
One of which, as the testosterone began to take effect this summer, is that other people got to feel like this all their lives. That is, while there is nothing to envy in having a sex drive that requires continual policing for fear of becoming immediately distracted (sympathies to any and all teenage boys currently experiencing this hell), the previous situation wherein I was less a person and more a balloon of despairing thoughts trying its utmost to distract itself from an unwanted and fairly revolting physical neighbour was not the norm. I’d just assumed it wasn’t actually possible to be not so much happy with your body as even in it at all, and that everyone else was just being stubborn and dictatorial as they chirped at me to love myself and maybe, possibly, exercise some kind of caution rather than leaping with carefree abandon into the path of oncoming buses.
Other people, it seems, just kind of naturally recognise the face in the mirror as their own rather than squinting at it for a minute in the mornings and then, halfway through a cup of tea, accepting that it is very unlikely to be their mum. It’s not really a question of being happy with the way you look so much as that being you that looks that way. There has been a definite diminution in how clumsy I am since I started actually inhabiting a body that feels like it’s mine, rather than piloting a scribble with no proprioception and the vague sense that I’ve been left in charge of something I’m not really meant to have. I’m bordering on coordinated now, although I appreciate some of the people I have landed on at Duckie might not see it that way.
Now, some time after the demise of the breasts, a little after the removal of the post-surgical binder (yes, security guard at White Mischief Halloween Ball who got incessant about searching me for drugs I quite clearly didn’t have; that is what you were fiddling with. A surgical garment), I’m carefully realigning myself to two old realities made new by the intervening 22 years:
No one is going to consider it obscene if I take off my top in public.
It’s bloody cold with just a t-shirt on.
This wild and fantastic world where I can just throw on a t-shirt and not have to spend time wrestling with either a bra or a binder is going to take a little adjusting to, but it is the adjustment of absolute ecstasy. I can’t move my arms properly yet: I seem to have lost a lot of flexibility, fitness, and much of the upper body strength I’d built up before the surgery. I’m hilariously scarred, puckered, still a little distended from internal bleeding, and prone to criticising the outcome as being terrible – locked in the moment where I can’t lift weights, do press-ups, or raise my arms directly above my head without running the risk of messing myself up, and convinced as always that this will last forever.
And then I remember that what had once seemed impossible is already daily reality: everyone calls me “sir” or “mate”. I sound like my own Dad. There’s some pathetic approximation of a beard beginning, sporadically, across my face. Most important of all, in a few days I get to hurl a pair of comedy tits at the ceiling of a pub in joyous symbolic celebration of the departure of the real thing: so long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, fuck off.
For “morning” please also read “when I get up”, which on work weeks is halfway through the afternoon, because I work (ostensibly, I usually start earlier and finish earlier) from 10pm until 6.15am.
Rituals and routines help shift a lot of work without making decisions, a handy factor when you’ve just woken up and your brain isn’t actually working yet, or if you have some kind of executive function problem; you can just run the automatic process and don’t have to decide on anything (I’m not saying that solves executive function problems but it can help ameliorate them). Also very useful if, like me, you spend 7 days out of every 14 at minimum running on an increasing sleep deficit.
Many people have morning rituals; reading the newspapers over coffee, using the same three swearwords over burnt toast and aggressive hair-straighteners, grabbing an ostensibly healthy smoothie while running to the station because their morning ritual involves being late, doing yoga with the sunrise because their morning ritual involves being smug…
The longer things are incorporated the more set they become. It’s why you’re encouraged to take medication at the same time every day (I mostly manage this, although apart from the citirizine hydrochloride they’re not really mandatory so much as “recommended”), or why people trying to improve their fitness levels squeeze in their morning run at the same point every day (past me, on my way home, while wearing more and more swanky workout gear).
So far I’ve got the hang of things like “eating breakfast” and “exercise” because of morning routines; boarding school taught me exciting things like “consistently showering” (which depression then completely undermined for years; nothing like “smelling of stale sweat” to increase your sense of no self-worth, compounding the shiteness of depression, weighing you down, and making it ever-more unlikely you’ll find the strength to fix even that), for a while I had the morning ritual of make-up, for a while I had the morning ritual of “removing yesterday’s make-up”, for a while I had the morning ritual of “a hangover every single day”, which was not what I would call Peak Achievement.
These days it goes like this:
Arise thy ass from bed.
Go at once to the kitchen and make tea. Acquire ye water.
Ingest with thy water the selection of pills demeaned necessary to prevent cholesterol from overpowering thy body and the country’s blatant absence of sunlight from turning thy bones to dust. [Summer variant: fling in some anti-histamines or spend all day scratching your visage and sneezing mightily]. Brush the enamel-coated protrusions of bone into thy mouth until they stop feeling like a goblin climbed into thy mouth in the night and wiped its unholy ass all over them.
Prepare thou thy breakfast and consume it. On a good day, Instagram the breakfast photo, because “putting pictures of what I eat on Instagram like a kind of Gallery of Shame” stops me eating so much carbonated assfart.
Enter into the bathroom and consume a cup of tea while sitting on the bog and browsing thy social media profiles on a tablet, which is going to be the single most 21st-century thing I do all day short of complaining at TfL on Twitter while on one of their buses about how the bus isn’t working. Which is in all reality just a very quick version of the Letter to the Times beloved of my stroppy ancestors [Sir, I waited three quarters of an hour for a bus which the LED display reliably informed me, the whole time, was 6 minutes away; when the bus arrived it promptly terminated. Is this some sort of psychological experiment and what does it say about me that I reacted to this by throwing my umbrella into the road and buying a Shitty Chicken Meal?]
At a time judged by the Sacred “I Ran Out Of Internet And Am Now Browsing Food Tumblrs”, ascertain that the calories within breakfast have been assimilated into the bloodstream and the Foul Human Carcass will be capable of completing its morning workout.
Bizarre routine of stretching and warm-ups which is cobbled together from logic, necessity, half-remembered yoga and even more hazily-remembered ballet warm-up.
Whichever of the four entries of specific work-out is earmarked for that day [this took a lot of fiddling, twiddling, and input from three separate fitness-authoritative friends, one of whom can deadlift approximately 300lb and has bright blue hair because she is the coolest being on the planet; it will probably continue to be fiddled with, but I would be kidding everyone if I didn’t explain that it took several near-shouting matches before anyone could convince me that three recovery days a week is preferable for muscle growth and improved strength and that talking me down from six continual days of weight-lifting out of every seven is not, as slightly mental-ly asserted, “a conspiracy to make me remain fat and useless forever”]
After the completion of thy whatevers, post FITSHAMING results on Facebook for maximum accountability [if I were more organised/had space on my tablet for more apps I’d do this on a fitness tracker].
Waste slightly more time on the internet until thou hast regained thy breath.
Slather thy face with cleandirt in an attempt to prevent it from turning into a major oil well. [It will do this anyway. I am on a shot of Sustanon 250 every just-under lunar month – about 26 to 27 days – and it is doing the predicted in Making My Skin Turn Into The Before Shot In A Clearasil Advert. I am assured it will get worse. I cannot wait.] Remove the dirt from thy skin. Remove the dirt from thy sink.
Enter the cleansing cubicle and use low-pressure boiling water to strip thy skin from thy flesh with the aid of whatever weird smelly goo was cheapest in Morrisons recently. Potentially try to remove some of the several months of accretion of glitter from thy over-bleached and wispy hair.
Exit the cleansing cubicle and remove water from Foul Human Carcass. Reapply The Shame Bracelet. Apply whichever scented unguent seems most likely to prevent thy armpits from smelling like grilled hobos by the end of today.
Industriously apply unwise quantities of glitter suspended in moisturiser. [Because I won’t moisturise otherwise, I put glitter in there. The next step is to bribe myself into using suncream via the same method. If you don’t have to coax yourself into responsible adulthood behaviours by treating your own brain like the truculent four-year-old it actually is, congratulations. If you do, check out my guide to tricking yourself into eating vegetables.]
Optional: Attempt to insert contact lenses with deleterious quantities of glitter gel on thy fingers, because thou art a fucking idiot and never remember to do this FIRST.
Hide the wretched flesh prison from the prying eyes of the world with the application of cloth.
NOW I AM READY TO SPEND ANOTHER THREE HOURS DICKING AROUND ON THE INTERNET.
That should cover the basics, I feel. I’m not a fan of making big announcements but as I made a song-and-dance about the last name change and this one is rather more important, it behoves me to at least have a hum and a shuffle about this.
For very few remaining people this will come as a surprise. The majority already know. I’m in the laborious process of flitting between private and NHS healthcare at the moment, trying to secure prescriptions and surgery, and spending a lot of my free time doing daft-looking and daft-sounding exercises to help shape my muscles and vocal chords so that strangers stop referring to me as “she” and making me feel like crap.
It should be noted that my friends have been exemplary about this, with almost no habitual slip-ups and immediate corrections. Not one of them has questioned whether I mean it, and not one of them has flounced off in a transphobic huff. I’ve spent years and years filtering out the arseholes from my social circles and it has paid off
In my job I read a lot of news articles, and it gives me the unparalleled opportunity to see how the narrative of transitioning, which seems to have been cemented in place a long time ago and which requires a fairly rigid set of boxes to be ticked, is usually told. It’s also given me the opportunity to see that while the media is pretty obsessed with trans women (whether deriding them, fetishing them, or actually managing to be respectful) there are still not very many mentions of trans men. There were even fewer mentions when I was younger, which I’m pretty sure was a contributing factor in me being blissfully uncomfortable and incapable of actually putting a name to what was wrong for so long. A list like this one might help, might have helped.
There is a traditional narrative of transition, of early discomfort, cross-dressing, and dysphoria, disaffection with social gender roles and clothing, culminating in a lightbulb moment. There are a few hiccups with that smooth narrative: cross-dressing is not necessarily linked to gender roles, clothes don’t really have their own gender, and thanks to tireless campaigning by women’s dress reformers in the 1800s and early 1900s, it is not exactly outre for women to wear trousers or suit blazers. Unfortunately for men who like dresses, Eddie Izzard has not had the same degree of success in ungendering the frock and lippy.
The bounds of gender are also elastic. If a cis woman can be butch, a tomboy, etc, without compromising her gender identity (and she can and should be allowed this), then why should a transgender woman not be allowed this? If a cis man can be a drag queen (and God be praised many are, drag queens are an element of entertainment culture I never, ever want to see pass away), or a metrosexual, or David Bowie, why can’t a trans man have purple eyebrows and a latex dress?
Discomfort with gender roles is, I’ve noticed, hardly restricted to transgender people. Straight, cis, male friends complain tirelessly of being boxed in by expectations of masculinity. The angry demand that women be allowed to damn well do anything that men do (including really stupid and damaging things) has been heard with increasing ferocity and eloquence for over a century in the UK alone.
Early discomfort is … well, it’s hard to separate from discomfort with other things, a factor which seems to be largely ignored in the WPATH standards of care. I was raised in a proudly and profoundly second-wave feminist household. Since the moment I could form sentences I have been aware of a) the millstone of partriarchal impositions on women’s bodies, b) the role of the partriarchy in suppressing women’s achievements and c) the phrase “internalised misogyny”.
In a world where a bleak division continues to be perpetrated between the power held by women and the power granted to men, is it really likely that every transgender child can tell the difference between being piqued that they’re prevented from having a pink doll or furious at being forbidden football for reasons of generalised unfairness and the stirrings of social dysphoria? We only have hindsight.
Physical dysphoria (as opposed to social dysphoria) which is not a requirement for a non-cisgender identity, is more concrete. And so we’ll begin my Classic Trans Narrative with that.
It is a curious thing to look back over the experiences of your life and realise that your uncategorisable weirdnesses, over which you’ve experienced shame, guilt, anger, and a sense of dislocation from yourself so deep that you’re still plagued by doubts that you exist at all, and find that you are, in fact, categorisable. To turn to other people who have had similar experiences and find that they fit, to a degree, within an existing framework of which you’ve been utterly ignorant. To go back and fit the disjointed, glaring moments and current of Wrongness into an actual picture which, viewed from the position of already having the answer, suddenly and finally makes sense.
A bit like a historical Magic Eye Picture.
If I was preparing a slideshow I might, for example, include childhood instances of trying to create an STP harness out of a toilet roll tube. I might mention the virulent jealousy of my male best friend and his stupid weird testicles when I was 7. Children are weird, naysayers would say. I might mention the utterly alien experience of female puberty, bringing with it the start of no longer feeling as if I was in my own body – a sensation which has sent me through all kinds of risk-taking behaviour, depths of despair, unwanted pregnancy (why care about contraception when you barely believe it’s you having the unprotected vaginal sex?), eating disorders, obesity, self-harm, and a long-term indifference to my own survival. Internalised misogyny, naysayers would desperately reply, on being faced with these Powerpoint slides.
It is also curious to think that the answer was so flatly denied with such a contradictory blend of “everyone feels like that” and “you’re weird”. Make up your minds, Society!
Physical dysphoria takes many forms (please note 2). For the most part I’ve been lucky. Feel revulsion and discomfort would require a sense of association with my body and over a decade of starvation, substance abuse, shitty behaviour, and just plain continually distracting myself has stopped that nonsense. Getting back in contact with myself – mainly through exercise and testosterone – has been, to put it mildly, frightening. Having a damageable human body instead of a vague idea that something I don’t like will be got rid of if I get hit by a truck is something I’m still adjusting to.
That feeling of alien disconnect was so pervasive, so normal to me, that I didn’t think it worth investigating, after a while. Internalised misogyny. A refusal to Play Nice With The World. My mother, working within her own framework of beliefs which include some interesting approaches to reincarnation, decided that I “didn’t want to be on the Earth”, which is hardly a perceptive leap after your only child has persistently attempted suicide and spends most of their time lying down or bleeding on things while crying.
It remains difficult to talk, or think about.
For the sake of the Narrative, let us assume there was one lightbulb moment, instead of a series of ever-increasing lightbulbs hastily switched off for fear of being ridiculed, accused of attention-seeking, and dismissed by all and sundry. Let us not compare the road to openness about gender with my progress to the same with sexuality, where I did the fucking Closet Hokey-Cokey for a decade and still operate, largely, on a need-to-know basis where I judge almost everyone as Not Needing To Know.
Let’s. It’s true. I’ve wandered back and forth on pronouns, accepted my position and rescinded it, panicking at the breadth of the implications and the apparently insurmountable obstacles, convinced the response would be the same: You’re Making It Up. And let’s, for a moment, regard with outright suspicion the people who believe that wanting to keep elements of one’s life and identity private, or not wishing to disclose, for example, the content of one’s underwear to hostile arseholes from every walk of life, means one is not sincere.
And let’s also talk about wishful thinking, the main outlet for someone too fearful of rejection to actually pursue the increasingly obvious: an avowed atheist, I’ve lobbed pennies in wells, made wishes on candles, submitted prayers at Sacre Coeur on a Christmas Holiday, sought out shooting stars, made weird bargains with the universe where on a set time and date (compliant with what I was raised to believe: manifestation, and positive thinking. Turns out, by the way, you actually have to do something instead) I would just wake up and everything would be fine. No more heinous female body. No more womb torment, no more stupid voice, and could I maybe please also grow six inches?
The universe, unfeeling and indeed non-cogitating bastard that it is, has not obliged me. Thankfully I’ve never been nuts enough to think that what it wants from me is human sacrifice, because I’d have been willing.
This is understandably a question I’ve been asked a few times by medical professionals. They are required to ask, and if I’ve been effectively sitting on a suicidal ideation landmine for 30+ years the question of “why now” does seem pertinent. There are a lot of factors: the presence of the Resident Australian and the sense of security and stability in my home life has helped enormously, as has the increasing number of transgender friends I’ve amassed who are, by virtue of who they are, more inclined to take me seriously. Media concentration has made it less likely that I’ll be met with total bemusement; indignant support by acquaintances for the gender identity of Chelsea Manning (for various reasons the fact that this is a Wikipedia link is highly ironic) was a boost, as was the delighted reception of Laverne Cox into the public eye.
Also, and less pleasantly, people have persistently been dying – in 2011 a series of friends and acquaintances committed suicide, in 2012 two deaths occurred in my family in the same week – which despite a long and by then almost-habitual familiarity with suicidal ideation and an indifference to my own survival, did also give me the impetus to think about how everyone else conducted their lives.
Namely, right up until those friends lost their grip on the battle with their own mental health, and until those family members no longer had the physical wherewithal to keep kicking death in the bollocks, none of them had to my knowledge spent their entire lives hiding under a rock and drifting into and out of things without my sustained enthusiasm because they felt like a shadow of a person. In fact, they’d done the opposite – pursued their interests and passions with zeal and vigour, and in every case the world will be the worse for not having them in it. I wasn’t sure the same could be said for me.
The same very much cannot be said for me, in fact. A lack of confidence has dogged me most of my life. I’ve walked into achievements with the blunt sense that I don’t deserve them and that they belong to someone else. The BA I earned was an aberration. The literary competitions I won were probably a mistake. The relationships I had were just because people hadn’t realised I was a fake. And so on. I pursued almost nothing, I settled as quickly and as easily as I could and tolerated things that should not have been tolerable to anyone simply because I couldn’t bring myself to care about them. My body wasn’t right, I wasn’t right, so what did it matter if I did or did not go anywhere in life?
Flitting in and out of unemployment and bashing out books did give me a chance to consider this, too. What exactly was I avoiding in not doing anything about a problem that was destroying me, body and mind? “Things might be terrible?” Things were already terrible.
As I said, I’ve never been a terribly motivated person. If there is even a sliver of doubt in the likelihood of me getting to point B from point A I hang back and don’t get off the sofa. There was no guarantee that I wouldn’t do with this as I had with, say, my attempt at a career change five years ago, when I chucked some redundancy money at getting an HNC in Music Production: pursue it enough to get over the quantifiable hurdle (I passed the HNC with a Distinction because if there’s one thing I am it is painfully, pathetically academically competitive when I already know I’m doing better than the rest of my class) and then abandon it as too hard, requiring too much interaction.
That’s another thing, by the way. When you live your life in a constant fug of Wrongness and misgendering you don’t really want to interact with people very much. It drains the living shit out of you because you’re having to realign yourself, continually, to a gender that’s not yours, and rise above feeling like utter pants in order to communicate/remember how to perform that Not Your Gender.
I lined up all the possible objections to my transition and started to tackle them with a determination I had no idea I actually possessed.
I was worried that, being a long way “obese” on the BMI scale when I went to see my GP, I might be refused treatment on the basis of physical health. Testosterone raises the blood pressure and cholesterol, and both are associated also with elevated weight. As it happens, my cholesterol levels were entirely fine and my blood pressure was “surprisingly good” for someone of my total lack of fitness and dislike of being in a doctor’s surgery talking about My Feelings.
But I didn’t want to encounter any potential resistance later, either. So I hurled myself at what is looking to be a permanent lifestyle change: I now walk around 5 miles most days, lift weights, and eat less than a third of what I was eating before: completely different foods. Since August 2014 I have gone from 113kg to 73-76kg depending on the week.
I was aware this was going to take a long time, and also aware that I am not a patient person. Cowardly, yes; patient, no. And the one thing I know about medical processes is that if you want something doing quickly, you have to pay for it. For which I would need a regular source of income that wasn’t in the doldrums. I would also need to not be constantly at the mercy of some spectacular dickheads higher up the food chain one of my seasonal work go-tos, which was also something of a foot in the arse for what happened next: I changed gear, and went after a job with the kind of direction and determination I have, again, never actually managed before.
I got the job.
I passed my probation, which has also never happened before.
I’m good at my job.
Which is weird.
I’ve actually started looking into savings schemes and planning ahead. For the future. The one that I’m actually convinced I’m going to have now. I’ve stopped behaving as if I’m going to die tomorrow.
The path hasn’t been easy. There have been setbacks, misunderstandings, lost documents – a grim period in which a lack of information from the Passport Office website meant I didn’t have the right paperwork and effectively had my passport confiscated, putting me in the same category as people who want to take their daughters abroad for FGM because they hadn’t been clear about what degree of medical professional they wanted a letter from. There’s been money flying about like the trading floor of a stock exchange. And instead of toppling over the minute things get difficult, as has typically been my wont (“This is hard! I’m not doing it!”), each time I’ve taken stock, collected advice, asked for clarifications, and attacked the problem anew.
People have been helping. Not just a battery of deeply, deeply appreciated friends, not just the people I live with, not people with a stake in seeing me happy. Doctors. HR managers. Even, once I had the right damn letter, the Passport Office. Who have expressed sympathy and the desire to be supportive. Who have listened to me. Who have, instead of treating me like I don’t know my own mind, responded to me behaving like an actual damn adult and saying “I do know myself better than you do, and what I know is that I am not going back on this” by agreeing that I know what I am.
Why blow my own trumpet in such a vulgar fashion?
Because, pathetic as it is, this is amazing to me. After three decades of being a spineless, directionless, worried idiot who lived so constantly with the desire to die or at least not live, I can now make long-term plans; I don’t walk around feeling like I’m slowly suffocating. I have things to look forward to. I have determination to make those things happen. I have contingency plans. I am prepared to kick and kick and kick until I get a body I can live in; now that there is a route out of this situation that doesn’t feel unreachable, I feel like I have the power to reach for it; now that there’s a way out that isn’t just “die”, I don’t want to die any more.
As I told the first therapist I saw about this, I didn’t know I could do this. And now… what else could I do? What else am I capable of?
Most of the resources online for parents dealing with their children transitioning are aimed at the parents of young children and teenagers. I’d like to think that means that parents are becoming if not more accepting (lunatics and bigots will always abound), then at least better-informed. When I was younger there was none of this, no framing for what I was feeling, and no point of reference. No depiction of trans men in the media or in the books I read that would have given me a handle on how to phrase what I experienced.
Trans men and women before me have fought like crazy to get us we were are now: talking about Caitlyn Jenner’s dress and Lana Wachowski’s mad sci-fi. Presenting narratives about transgender men and women that don’t end in suicide or murder, so that the next generations have something to look forward to, something to hope for.
If it’s not too late for Caitlyn Jenner to get her life working the right way for her, then it’s not too late for me.
These links are intended for the further education of people who have recently discovered a friend or family member is transgender, rather than for the support or assistance of those who are trying to transition. I also recommend reading the links in the body text.
The 100 Works of Art blog post series is, in the most basic form, me rambling about the personal connections to and appreciation for works of art that I like. It is not particularly critical or intelligent, more a way of cataloguing things I consistently enjoy and reminding myself, when the world is full of infuriating news stories and people having pointless flamewars on the internet, that humanity has also produced great things. It begins with 25 posts on visual art, which starts with Matta’s “Black Virtue” triptych, and has since continued on with a few posts about audio art (i.e. music), beginning with “Let’s Go To Bed” by the Cure.
31. We Hate The Kids, The Indelicates (2006)
The Indelicates are a band whose introduction into my life I forget. I know that I came to them via their sarcastic, bitter song Our Daughters Will Never Be Free, and was given said song because I liked (and still like) The Pipettes, being told “they’re sort of the anti-Pipettes”. It wasn’t until I listened to Julia, We Don’t Live In The Sixties (an anti-activist/death of hippydom anthem) and Your Money that I realised that sweet, pop catchiness (characterised by Julia’s clear, beautiful, almost childlike voice) with bitter and often nihilistic lyrics were characteristic of the band. Anyone who has read much of this blog series will know that I have an almost pathological love of the particular cognitive dissonance in “upbeat music, downbeat lyrics”, previously described as “triumphant songs about heartbreak”, and recently on Facebook outlined as “cheerful songs about death”.
Picking one specific Indelicates song for this series was quite difficult, as alongside literary references and an interest in failed messianic figures, nihilism, cynicism, and bitterness seem to be their stock-in-trade lyrically as much as catchy and uptempo is their stock-in-trade musically, leaving me with several albums of “existential horror you can dance to” to sift through. Magnificent.
We Hate The Kids comes in the vein of Last Significant Statement and to a certain extent Sixteen,in that it’s a song about music and music fandom and the adhesive quality of idol-worship; I enjoy songs about the music industry as experienced both by fans and by bands (Dinosaurs Will Die by NoFX, Behind The Music by the Vandals, especially the latter as it served as a brilliant adjunct to the “Music Business” classes I took as part of my HNC in Music Production a couple of years ago), and as with all songs, the more bitter the better.
This particular song is ecstatic in its form: it rises to a crescendo, denigrating along the way all the fans of the band, of all bands, all the hangers-on, the businessmen involved, and the entire mythology attached to the youth culture of music. It is blazingly destructive, eschewing the sacred cows of rock and roll with the same fervour that rock and roll eschews the standard set of achievements in “normal” living, a kind of energetic end-note to a youth spent in worship of the world of music.
Perhaps in some respect this is why it, and indeed the rest of their work, appeals to me so much; it is a powerful chapter ending to a specific period of life that normally receives no farewell, no recognition of being over, leaving it to either peter out unsuccessfully, or to never quite die – with stringy fifty-and-sixty-somethings kidding themselves that they still have it in them to pogo, while their adult children sigh and move to the back of the crowd.
The allusions to rock anthems are many (“every generation gets fooled again/and every generation is to blame” slams into the Who at least twice, while “dance, dance, dance to this radio tonight” more or less picks up Joy Division and hits the listener with them), the references to business bitter and bold (“no one discusses what they don’t understand/and no one does anything to harm the brand”), and there is even an echo of one of my favourite Radiohead songs, Anyone Can Play Guitar (“this gift is an illusion, this isn’t hard/absolutely anyone can playing the fucking guitar”), but ultimately it is the rise to the euphoric nihilism of “NO MORE MUSIC, THANK YOU AND GOOD NIGHT” which really sells the song to me. It is by way of being the hallelujah of the hymn, and, true to its word, right afterwards everything cuts out.
The 100 Works of Art series is still going, albeit slowly. There have been 25 posts about visual art and 5 about audio art so far. The premise behind this series of posts isn’t analytical writing but a kind of sloppy marriage between analysis and personal connection, which is exactly as dreadful as it sounds.
30. Town Called Malice, The Jam (1982)
The Jam provide solid-if-vague politically aware white-boy-with-angry-guitar music, ragged with sarcasm and generally quite danceable. Once, when I was 17 and in a shit nightclub in Plymouth, I slapped a man I’d been flirting with because he called Courtney Love a psycho bitch and opined that Hole weren’t as good as Paul Weller’s solo stuff, because I cared a LOT more deeply about music at 17 than I do now, writing essays about it. “Going Underground” is one of my favourite songs, although it went down in my estimation when my far superior mondegreen of a sarcastic commentary on manufactured outrage (“at this point shout! at this point scream!”) was revealed by Googling to be a much less inspiring standard-issue general anger (“make this boy shout, make this boy scream”).
Because I grew up in a household with bizarre and unfriendly musical tastes, I came to The Jam via unorthodox routes; I only found out about “Going Underground” because of the excellent Fitness To Practice spoof “London Underground” (which I still secretly prefer), and it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that I only knew “Town Called Malice” because a friend gave me the soundtrack to “Billy Elliot”.
Once upon a time I worked in a demoralising and monotonous job. Well, several times upon a time, really. For reasons that don’t make a lot of sense to sane people, I used to get up between 3.30am and 4.30am and, via a series of strategic naps, make it in to work long before everyone else and avoid the rush. The problem with this tactic of people-avoidance, apart from the terrible sleep patterns and likelihood of running into foxes on the way in, was that I ran out of energy before the working day had even started.
And so I had to compile a playlist of songs that had the function of providing me with pep and vigour. This was one of them: just as it provided a perfect soundtrack to Billy Elliot exploding with the joy of movement through a dour and oppressive town, so it got me out of darkness and sleep every morning and gave me enough life to deal with eight hours of data entry. It seems like an abuse of a song.
It’s one of those songs where the lyrics and music clash, producing a contrast in concept or tone; by now readers of this series will be aware that I have a great love for that kind of cognitive dissonance in art. Town Called Malice brings together lonely housewives, impoverished children, boozy husbands, and the slow death of a town with a tune that inspires frantic, emotive dance. The tune is upbeat, a sing-along song for cold mornings and drunken evenings, and the lyrics are a sad, barely-hopeful description of life in a dying town.
Dying towns slipped by my periphery when I was a child in the 80s. We spent six months in a place where poverty was more visible, drawn in primary colours and a lengthy drought, and when I came back my horizons had shifted: as far as I was concerned the people in debt for their colour TVs were rich, and it’s only in hindsight that I can see the dead cities in the streets I used to run down, the grey faces surrounding the rainbows of the imagination. Songs like this one bring a kind of valour to what must have felt like slow rot to live with every day: when I was a child I didn’t know any different, but through the fearful eye of adulthood and the emotive transport of music, it’s easy to take on those miserable ghosts and just kind of … dance at them.
After all, the world does appear to be heading back into a dead-towns-and-lonely-housewives direction once more.
Sewing in this respect does provide a useful metaphor for how I live my life: I’m not wholly sure what I’m doing, I don’t understand the instructions, I don’t understand how the machine (my brain, I guess) works, everyone else seems to have more resources, I am making bits of it up as I go along, there is a lot of trial and error, most of it feels like wrestling with a very large and very angry cat (complete with bloodshed), but as long as I can produce something that looks like it was intentional most people don’t care how much I’m winging the process. I don’t even think the metaphor needed to be stretched that much, which is frankly disturbing.
The brain/body stimulation comes from a near-perfect balance of time and distance: I spend roughly half an hour/one cup of tea (which is a good measurement of time) underlining things in and making the odd note on the first of many books on stage magic, Edwardian history and suchlike, which I am going to have to read in order to make this next book of mine worth reading (I’ve yet to find anything pertaining specifically to King’s College Cambridge in the 1899-1903-ish period – particularly rules, practices, and syllabuses – so if anyone has any suggestions I’d welcome them). Then I walk from King’s Cross to either Covent Garden, Trafalgar Square, or Oxford Circus, depending, under the pretext of looking at/for things. It’s not a preposterously huge distance – a couple of miles at most – and the ever-changing landscape and challenge of finding the most direct or tourist-free route is entertaining. Walking also gives the brain time to digest everything it’s just read, and hopefully incorporate it into a revised/tightened plot.
The specific idea with walking to Trafalgar Square is of course that I could go into the Peyton & Byrne at the National Gallery and do another half hour of tea and research, but so far that’s failed to happen in the face of me not having enough change left for tea – which is fifty pence more expensive at the National Gallery branch than it is at the British Library branch. TUT, PEYTON & BYRNE, THIS WILL NOT STAND.
Slowly mastering the North-to-South routes for walking is very entertaining, but I think next I shall try the East-to-West. Is there a Peyton and Byrne in Paddington and if there is, how much is the tea? Important questions need resolving.
The 100 Works of Art blog series is to do with personal interaction with beloved works of art rather than impartial reviews or focussing solely on the relatable and universal qualities of the work. Because this is a blog, not a book. The first 25 are to do with visual art, and begin with Matta’s Black Virtue; the next 25 will be about aural art and begin with The Cure’s Let’s Go To Bed.
29. Crow on the Cradle, Sydney Carter & Jackson Browne
I grew up on a mixture of folk music and a little of the blues. My mother had what my peers characterised as “terrible” taste in music, and I adopted it: as I’ve got older her taste in music has become genuinely terrible (there was a point where it was all whale noise and Gregorian chant and then as I got into plainchant she managed to undercut me again and asked if I’d get her a James Blunt CD) and I’ve decided to ignore the judgement of a collection of Celine Dion-reared rejects from my childhood and embrace the inner folkie. A lot of the songs I listened to as a child were standard-issue folk music about girls with this or that coloured hair or one particularly brilliant song about an enormous pie – the title of which I’ve never been able to remember, to my great loss. But a lot of the songs, too, were protest songs: other contenders for this slot included Country Joe & The Fish’s Fish Cheer/I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ To Die Rag, a selection of Donovan songs including Universal Soldier, and the Fureys & Davey Arthur’s version of The Green Fields of France. Not surprisingly for someone who was taken to an anti-nuclear weapons protest at six weeks old, I grew up listening to various earnest people – both with and without beards and dungarees – requesting with various metaphors and degrees of urgency that the world consider maybe not nuking itself into oblivion.
Regular readers of this blog will be more than a little aware by now that I am morbid as fuck despite all my best efforts, and this began early, with a love of the aforementioned Green Fields of France and a collection of songs which were, bluntly put, guitar-led dirges about dead people. Crow on the Cradle is no different in that respect, and along with Universal Soldier and an untitled song about dead soldiers in the Vietnam War which I listened to so often that I wore out the C90 cassette it was on, got considerable use as a lullaby for me.
It is a little like a lullaby. There is something late evening, inevitable, and gentle about the version I am most familiar with. It puts me in mind of the festivals I spent all my childhood summers at: the sun low in the sky, the flies rising, a hubbub of voices and the smell of wood fires, music everywhere in the background, and hot, dry earth under bare feet. In that respect it is comforting, although you do have to wonder about finding a song warning of nuclear holocaust “comforting”.
As with many a folk song, the lyrics work as a poem, and the whole thing is designed to be memorable and easily-recited. It’s a kind of troubadour tradition: make the information simple to pass on and vivid enough to stick in people’s minds. In the case of Crow on the Cradle it’s achieved with snatches of nursery rhymes and nursery-rhyme-esque phrase: hush-a-bye little one, never you weep; with rings on her fingers, and bells on her toes; in each case subverted by a fairly chilling closing part to the pattern: for we’ve got a toy that can put you to sleep; or and a bomber above her wherever she goes. As the fact that I’ve had a French nursery rhyme about wearing clogs stuck in my head for a week can very much attest, nursery rhymes are tenacious once crammed into the brain and arise as soon as a similar phrase is heard. So it is that this is a thing that I leave up to you immediately recalls the rest of the song, and while “Ride a cock horse to Banbury Cross” is not the most oft-recited of nursery rhymes, it has been supplanted in my mind all the same by and a bomber above her wherever she goes.
Each verse in itself becomes bleaker and more morbid as it progresses, from cow’s in the corn to carry a gun (and the ominous omen of death in the crow on the cradle of the title and refrain), but overall they also become more and more ominous and threatening, like the returning passes of a bomber. Well-paced in this regard, it is the centre verse which repeats on itself, speeding up the onset of the fearful and the morbid (somebody’s baby is born for a fight / somebody’s baby is not coming back), setting up the remaining two verses with their violence and oppression at the start: your mother and father will sweat and they’ll save, to build you a coffin and dig you a grave. In these remaining verses the blame is attributed: the beginnings speak of the baby in the cradle and the doom overhanging it, while these tell the listener whose fault it is. The generation of the songwriter, apparently, is to blame.
The song closes with an insistent demand for action delivered by the threat that must be eliminated itself, the eponymous crow on the cradle, repeating: this is a thing that I leave up to you. Even now the assigning of responsibility is palpable and in the context of the rest of the song the refusal to act seems like it comes at a chilling cost. It is not hard to imagine the crow as a mushroom cloud.
In light of all this, even more so, it is strange to find the song comforting, but I’ve always also found a certain level of comfort in nihilism and the idea of accepting the degree of powerlessness an individual has in the face of a very powerful force (in this case, mankind’s apparent yen for self-destruction).
The 100 Works of Art blog series is to do with personal interaction with beloved works of art rather than impartial reviews or focussing solely on the relatable and universal qualities of the work. Because this is a blog, not a book. The first 25 are to do with visual art, and begin with Matta’s Black Virtue; the next 25 will be about aural art and begin with The Cure’s Let’s Go To Bed.
28. Best Sunday Dress, Hole
For most of the turbulent and eventful year that was the first in the Gregorian calendar to begin with a 2 and carry three digits after it, the oft-lyriced-about 2000, this was my favourite song. It’s a B-side, which I can promise you is unusual for me these days, but in the height of my pre-torrents, pre-YouTube music fever collecting B-sides of bands I liked was an art form in itself, and involved petitioning virtual strangers on message boards to send me bad cassette tapes, and trips to various market stalls to acquire bootleg CDs. I had a weekly income of £22 from my Saturday job, which I was technically trying to save, and couldn’t exactly spunk money left, right, and centre on hunting down rare releases – especially when even finding what they were was such a hassle.
Reader, you will be glad to hear that I have since realised that it is not necessary to be a completist to appreciate someone’s oeuvre, and as such Hole more or less mark the point at which I never again put so much effort into investing my interest in a single band. I don’t regret it in the slightest, however: even a few years later, when I’d moved on and was mostly listening to techno, and a copy of America’s Sweetheart came into the offices of the student rag I worked for, I still snapped it up. Nobody’s Daughter, even more recently, still met with a doggedly loyal reception. Connections forged in the emotional overreaction that is adolescence tend to hold more firmly than those found later.
So why this particular song, of all songs? I didn’t come to it first – that honour goes to the title track of third studio album Celebrity Skin – and it probably isn’t the most lyrically or musically accomplished of all the band’s work (most people agree that Live Through This contains almost all the strong contenders for that title); what resonated at the time was, perhaps rather shamefully, the tragedy inherent in both the simple chord structure and the lyrics.
At 17 and 18 I was a fairly stereotypical Sixth Form Goth, and as for much of my adult life, preoccupied with death – this time with all the fire and fervour of youth – and with the tragedy of suicide and all that jazz. My Nirvana phase was squarely behind me, and I’d moved on to scanning the lyrics of Hole songs for Courtney’s obvious and ongoing agony regarding the death of her husband. The song is pretty much rife with references which either are or can be pressed into service as references to the departed:
Pale blue eyes so young
Pale blue eyes so far away
Watch me with his sorrow
Forgive me all his pain
And at the time I was still in thrall to the key-change as an emotional intensifier, having ridden through the first burst of puberty on the back of the Top 40, so the line at which this occurs (roughly around shone like a diamond) also cemented itself into my head as one with great meaning, although now, looking back at the song with an additional 13 years of life in the way, it’s this which seems the most poignant:
and I’ve come here all undressed
all the posion and pain and I take what is mine
possibly because these two lines to me represent adequately what has happened to Courtney in the eye of the beholder. She’s been repeatedly stripped of any right to mourn via rumours and accusations about her involvement or her emotional response (what is the correct response to your tempestuous and troubled love of your life shooting himself in the head while AWOL? Is there one? How do you respond to something so huge and so painful?), and exposed before all the world in the press as someone to be scrutinised at her time of greatest sorrow (much, indeed, as Yoko Ono was). A woman of strong, divisive personality and very powerful emotions, she would never have contented herself with a regal tear and the mannerly withdrawal required of widows: she was a rock star before she met him and she was determined to continue being one after he left. In the second line the poison and pain are as much the vitriol heaped on a grieving woman as they are the heroin and loss; I take what is mine could equally apply to retrieving the image of her dead husband from the media who declared him their property (I suspect she minded the fans slightly less) as to the acceptance of abuse (I take what is mine, I take what is intended for me, ie, poison and pain) from various quarters.
For what is a very, very sad song the sound is defiant. It’s not the sadness that curls in on itself and weeps quietly, but a kind of explosive sadness, a supernova of mourning or a howl of ongoing misery that acknowledges everything that’s fed into it as it pushes all of it outwards. Messier, and less acceptable than the accepted mode of widowhood, but then when I was 17 and 18 I was messier and less acceptable than the accepted mode of adolescence, trying to rescue my entire sense of self from five years in a lock-up and doing very poorly at it. It spoke to me, the way Courtney Love’s music spoke to several generations of unhappy and angry teenage girls and in fact continues to do so. The fans of it are still subject to the same derision and spite as its maker is, but that comes with the territory of being someone with too many uncontained feelings who refuses to beautify them for the comfort of others.