Dear Helen…

September 6, 2008

…quit goddamn fucking up… (to steal a phrase)

This is a ‘trying-to-think-things-through‘ post, it’s full-on ‘me-me-me‘ and is probably full of statements that will make people, trans and non-trans, frustrated and cross with me for being so stupid, so I want to apologise in advance for all of that. I also know that I have fucked up in various ways, and I apologise for that, too. But I need to try and work this through.

I’ve run into some very smart cookies since I began transitioning, and while I am in awe at the range and depth of their knowledge, I must confess that I often end up feeling, variously stupid, naive, ignorant – and yes, intimidated by their sheer intelligence and ability to see The Big Picture™, while I’m still struggling to piece together what they must surely see as the simplest of details. It doesn’t make me feel too good, to know that I don’t know so many things. I need to start addressing my lack of knowledge urgently – and I apologise for being so ignorant, for being such a slow learner.

I have a huge number of disconnects and discrepancies in my real life, as well as in the way I perceive myself and my relationships with the world and her sister. I know that it’s frustrating for my friends and allies; growing up in public like this is more difficult than I’d ever have imagined – not that I was smart enough to predict the likely effects of my changes in the first place. But I’m trying to get a grip on my personal views and beliefs, even though I know that I still have a huge amount of work, introspection and self-examination to do. I only hope that my friends and allies can find it in their hearts to be patient with me, and that I do not unwittingly cause them pain or offence at things I may say during this process. I feel bad enough knowing that I’ve already annoyed the hell out of them all as it is :/

But ‘process’ is a key word for me at the moment: I have had to make, and continue to make, many adjustments since starting to transition but I can’t imagine a time when I will say “I’ve transitioned”; it’s ongoing and I believe is likely to remain so for the rest of my days. So there is always going to be the risk that I’ll say dumbass things; I need to make sure it doesn’t happen anything like as often as it has been.

At the start of my transitioning, the driving force was simple survival: two years ago I attempted suicide because I could no longer go on living as ‘him’. I’d known at the age of five that something was wrong, that my body – somehow – just wasn’t right for the little girl who inhabited it. Five years old – that would have been 1961. Even assuming that, at five years old, I’d had the words, the intellectual capacity to verbalise what I felt – and even assuming my parents had understood and been supportive – what could I have done, practically? Although the first genital reconstructive surgery was carried out in 1931 (Lili Elbe), the first Briton to undergo the procedure was April Ashley – and that was in 1960, the year before my own personal revelation. It’s not that the facilities weren’t available, but that they weren’t available to a white, middle class five-year old.

So I was brought up as male, and along the way I benefitted from – amongst other things – male privilege and cis privilege. (And yes, I need to re-examine both of those). I became a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy: being in denial about my gender identity, I’m sure I overcompensated in many ways, but the older I became, the more withdrawn I became. I was avoiding facing the facts, I wasn’t thinking about what it meant to be a woman living as a man, what the implications were, on so many levels. I retreated into music making, taking drugs and, latterly, computers as ways of blocking out my personal reality; I took little notice of anything going on in the world around me. I was the stereotypical fingers-in-the-ears, la-la-la-I-can’t-hear-you, bad case of denial.

That is, until the dam burst, that sunny August afternoon in 2006. And although it was, and is, a huge liberation, it also leaves me with a history of half a century living as a man. I have two areas right there that still need fully unpicking: the gender identity issues, and the baggage of a lifetime lived as ‘him’. My immediate difficulties seem to be at the points of overlap and intersection of these two things.

For example, in this earlier thread, I was thinking about the word ‘tranny’. Growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, I hadn’t even heard the term ‘transsexual’. ‘Tranny’ was an abbreviation for either ‘transistor radio’ or ‘transvestite’. In addition, ‘cross dresser’ would have been a term I’d never heard at the time, nor the concept of gender as a spectrum. So, my initial reaction was not so much that the word could be offensive, but a sort of detached curiosity: I was neither a radio nor a cross dresser, so how could I find it offensive? But this is short-sighted: many of my trans sisters have been adversely affected by the use of the term, therefore I need to take it on board if I am serious about being supportive to other trans women. I’m not sure if it’s an age ‘thing’ or generational that made it so hard for me to understand that many people had been oppressed, and badly so, by the term. Just because I was ignorant enough not to have noticed it, didn’t mean it wasn’t happening. To those trans women who did feel the force of it, I apologise now unreservedly for fucking up.

Similarly, in this post, I mentioned my reservations about the term LGBT – lesbian, gay, bi and trans – how I couldn’t understand why trans people wanted to be included in a movement that clearly has such antipathy towards us (ENDA). But, as I’ve only ever been sexually attracted to women, then I’m de facto part of the lesbian community. So even I, in my own self-centred way, can see that there does need to be trans inclusivity in LGBT. The personal is political? Hmm. Another fuckup, for which I apologise.

I’m sure it wouldn’t be hard to find a zillion other examples of my fuckups, but I don’t think it would serve any useful purpose. And apologies, too, are useless if they don’t act as a springboard into a deeper understanding. I know that I’ve been bad, but now I need to stop beating myself up and focus on getting it right in future.

Suck it up and drive on…


Kate Bush – Deeper Understanding

As the people here grow colder
I turn to my computer
And spend my evenings with it
Like a friend

I was loading a new programme
I had ordered from a magazine:
Are you lonely, are you lost?
This voice console is a must

I press Execute…

Hello, I know that you’ve been feeling tired,
I bring you love and deeper understanding
Hello, I know that you’re unhappy,
I bring you love and deeper understanding

Well I’ve never felt such pleasure,
Nothing else seemed to matter,
I neglected my bodily needs
I did not eat, I did not sleep,
The intensity increasing
‘Til my family found me and intervened
But I was lonely, I was lost,
Without my little black box

I pick up the phone and go ‘Execute’…

Hello, I know that you’ve been feeling tired,
I bring you love and deeper understanding
Hello, I know that you’re unhappy,
I bring you love and deeper understanding…

I turn to my computer like a friend…
I need deeper understanding…
Give me deeper understanding…
I hate to leave you…

(YouTube link)


6 Responses to “Dear Helen…”

  1. Lisa Harney Says:

    Your pride in the name of love post is gone.

    I can understand if you deleted it.

    And there’s nothing wrong with not knowing something.


  2. Lisa Harney Says:

    Ah, I see you didn’t delete it, the link’s just not working.

    Also, please don’t flagellate yourself over your passing as male privilege. The idea that we experienced male privilege just like cis men is a silencing tactic used against us, and sets up the cissexual experience as the only possible experience.

  3. Lisa Harney Says:

    former passing as male privilege.

  4. Helen G Says:

    Link to Pride post should be okay now; sorry about that…

  5. Zenobia Says:

    In fact, don’t flagellate yourself over anything. Sometimes you have to put your foot in it to find out what it is, although I haven’t noticed you putting your foot in it any more than the rest of us, to be honest.

  6. When I have privilege (whether I really do or not, and as Lisa points out, women often greatly overestimate that!), I try to use it for good political ends and share it with people who don’t have it. If you learned something valuable before your transition, try to share that knowledge with others to further implement social change.

    Like: if you learned languages or skills, teach them to people who never had that opportunity. I recently wrote a cover letter for someone who (rightly) worried hers wasn’t very good, for instance. I take the time to share medical information with people who have been terrorized by doctors; I share my medical transcription knowledge and decipher the biological gobbledygook in their medical records. As a Christian, I will openly object to stuff that Muslims or Jews might feel (here in the south) is discriminatory but they are too nervous to say that out loud. (Nativity scenes in front of the Fire Dept, and like that.) Etc.

    It curbs my guilt when I share! :)

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