The Journey Begins

Thanks for joining me!

Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton


I’m here to explore my personal history with the aim of sharing it more widely. The more queer stories out there, the better chance of people finding those they can relate to.

Sharing my process here is a gesture of trust. It’s mainly so that others on that questioning path might find recognisable signposts or comfort, but it’s also for my loved ones to understand The Transgender Thing a bit better. Some thought that it came out of the blue, because I’d not shared until the last minute. Some thought it a whimsical choice, lol, or a trendy one, despite my total inability to be on-trend in other areas of my life.

Thoughtful, compassionate questions are welcome and I will do my best to answer them in a way that respects both parties. I will not be engaging with trolls, as it is a blatant waste of everybody’s time.

If you are a grammar nerd, please feel free to message me your corrections. I mean that in all seriousness. Constructive criticism of any variety is welcome. I wish to do better. Thank you for caring.


Safety, Energy, Courage

Before coming out to others, I complete a complicated dance that includes second-guessing, double-checking, scanning for safety, scanning for understanding, scanning myself for the energy to answer questions, scanning myself for emotional stability, and assessing the cost:benefit ratio. It’s a time-consuming yet essential dance that usually results in me deciding not to come out.

I don’t like coming out.

At twenty-three I came out as a lesbian to my family, five years after coming to that conclusion myself. I’d waited until I had my first girlfriend and until I lived far, far away. How far away? Overseas.

For five years, back in the good old days of card catalogues, I’d ‘researched’ alone in quiet libraries far from my home where nobody we knew would see me. Among the psychology textbooks that spoke of deviance, and the tasteless B-grade schlock novels, were a few autobiographies, a few short story compilations and a few cheesy novels.

Amid those bookshelves I slowly came to terms with the words others had shouted at me in high school. The only lesbians on TV back then were in Prisoner, and I was nothing like them. At night I listened to community radio, where the cloistered questioning queers like myself could access validation and comfort. I kept the sound down low.

In my first share house and while working for progressive organisations full of hippies, I kept the information to myself. The Sensitive New Age Guys, SNAGS, were still sexist and homophobic, though in veiled ways. I met a lot of great feminists and lesbians and became close to some. I didn’t want to be gay. I hoped that I’d just find the right guy.

Meeting my first girlfriend was a revelation. There were no further questions. Of course I loved women. What followed was twenty-five years of loving women, and being open about that. It was necessary for me to be out, as hiding was too close to shame and I carried enough of that about other things. But it was tough. It was a choice that carried its own consequences, and the ubiquitous homophobia, veiled and blatant, wore me down.

Now, for me, coming out is on a need-to-know basis.

It’s not necessary that everybody be out; that’s a decision for the individual alone. Sure, being out means you’re visible for youth and your peers, which can help everyone feel less isolated or peculiar, but it’s not a law. Everyone has their unique circumstances and their reasons. It’s not for others to judge.

Reversing toward surgery

After top surgery everything about me was raw and squirmy and I found it all funny. Almost daily I sat down and just let the words pour out until they stopped. Then I typed it all up and emailed it to a few trusted mates. Months after that, my usual reserve kicked back in and my writing languished in a folder, unedited.

This is a snippet of one daily outpouring:

I’m finally sitting here after a long break, wondering what the hell to write. I notice that I haven’t yet touched on the subject of surgery. That subject still feels raw. Last night as I sipped chamomile tea and felt myself gradually relax, I realised that my body still holds some terror about the surgery. I’m still avoiding it mentally, recently changed the subject when someone veered off my own well-worn conversational path, and still feel squirmy when touching my own chest. So I wouldn’t mind exploring that subject.

I wrote to a friend today about phantom nipples – the tissue above the scars on either side of my chest that crinkles up in the cold and has some sensation. I didn’t mention hairiness because it’s funny to me but not necessarily appealing to others. But I do enjoy the squirmy fascination of the regular close-up photos I take when changing the micropore tape strips. And when I was applying silicone gel directly to the scars, I took a perverse enjoyment in that discomfort too. It’s taken me a long time to feel as though my chest wasn’t going to break from mishandling. I don’t think I’m a hypochondriac but I sure was worried I’d ruin things and … (insert worst case scenario). Yep, typical anxiety disorder catastrophising, LOL. At least I’m consistent!

I seem to be working my way backwards to the day of surgery.

The bruises on my chest remain as shadows, even now. I would like to hear from the surgeon, without fainting, what exactly he did to the tissues in that area to cause that amount of bruising. To understand the cause and effect of it all, because the extent of my ignorance is staggering. I refused to take any photos until they’d started to fade. The original magenta and indigo colours horrified me and I had to laugh and dissociate a little to avoid being sad. 

No, all my energy back then was directed at healing and maintaining basic levels of hygiene and sociability. I had no spare energy for emotionality beyond bouts of thankfulness. I was immensely grateful for friends who checked in on me, for the friend who fed and entertained me, for family kindnesses, random displays of tenderness, and the thoughtfulness of neighbours. Not to mention the reliability, humour and gentleness of paid home helpers – they were amazing. Especially K, who shall remain an initial here for privacy reasons. Dwelling on thankfulness was a pleasure.

K went above and beyond, bringing turmeric lattes and odd snippets of news from the outside world that were guaranteed to make me smile. She seemed to intuit just what I needed – the jokes, the self-deprecating anecdotes, the reassurance that she understood that being naked and helpless and reliant on others was not necessarily fun but had its funny aspects. I never felt awkward with her and let’s face it, there was no room for modesty. I needed her help with showering and drying me off afterwards, before tucking me back into the bondage garment otherwise known as the compression vest. 

My ample belly was extra puffy from painkillers and the compression garment emphasised its size to a hilarious degree. I felt like a Santa impersonator, or that I’d fast-forwarded to a post-transition life as a bloke with a bugger of a beer habit. Either that, or as a neighbour suggested, my substantial chest had slid south. Thank goodness for laxatives!

Let me see if I can pin down the events that my body-mind would rather forget, and name them so that they lose their power over me. Hmm, the hospital time, basically.

I struggled with the distance from home and lack of familiar elements (besides my internal commentary and hyperventilation and physical trembling when alarmed).  These were predictable, having lived with an anxiety disorder and agoraphobia for so long. I was scared when they said I had a post-surgical haematoma and needed further surgery, because I didn’t understand what it all meant and didn’t have the available brain cells to ask, let alone understand. And I struggled with the helplessness and my reliance on the kindness (and availability) of others. I doubt that anyone enjoys those, let alone fasting and later, the dearth of decent digestibles. Then there was being given minimal notice to pack and evacuate my room, so that they could change the sheets for the next person. Wobbly, dizzy and with zero upper body strength, I was expected to accomplish this alone, with my support person stuck in traffic.

A week later, swollen like a beach ball and needing to return to hospital in the city by 8am, we got lost. These were all bearable and obviously I survived, so the next step might be to observe and release. Acknowledge that it was hard and it’s over. I won.

Learning how to listen

I used to think I was a good listener; in fact that delusion remains until each time I’m metaphorically smacked in the kisser by someone more articulate and assertive than the average.

Notes to self:

  • When you’re learning about someone else’s experience, their culture, or their worldview, stop butting in! Just listen – at least until there is a natural pause or they ask you for input.
  • Don’t make it about you! They don’t need to hear how difficult their experience is for you, for crying out loud. They don’t even need to hear how your own experience was worse or better than theirs. Talk about that stuff with someone skilled and discreet, maybe even a therapist.
  • When they share something deeply personal, don’t change the subject suddenly. They don’t want to hear some random crap after making themselves vulnerable. Respond appropriately, you egg!
  • If someone has told you something in confidence, make sure you keep it confidential. Don’t even bring it up again when you’re together unless you have permission. They might have just needed to say it out loud once, and to feel heard. If you listened well, that’s all that was needed. And for the love of all that is holy, don’t bring it up again in a group setting, on public transport, or even in a cafe where you might be overheard.
  • Suitable follow-up questions might be along the lines of “how did that feel?” or “was that what you wanted?”. Yes, I know they sound a bit therapist-y. They aren’t yes/no questions, so are more likely to encourage your friend to expand upon what they’ve already said. You want them to know that you’re listening and that you care about their feelings. You do want that, right?
  • If you’re going to ask them other sorts of questions, first double check with yourself that they are appropriate questions. Don’t be a sticky-beak or ask stuff that you can easily look up online. Then ask them if it’s ok to ask questions, knowing that they may well say no. That’s ok!
  • Finally, if they’re talking about receiving racist abuse and you say that you’re colourblind, expect a serve. You’ve basically just proved that you weren’t listening at all, and that you’re delusional to boot.

I’ve been insensitive, ignorant and a sticky-nose, sometimes all in one day. Unfortunately making mistakes is part of the learning process. Making this list might prevent me making the same mistakes over and over. Let’s hope, hey?

The hardest parts are over

The searching, waiting, fretting, planning, researching, saving and healing phases are far behind. Overthinking continues in bursts. Coming out is sporadic. I’m happy. Such a prosaic word, and so satisfying to use.

It’s been a heck of a ride and now I’m gleefully coasting. The roughest parts are behind me.

Am I tempting fate by saying this? Tut-tut, quit catastrophising.

Life-changing Life Drawing

From a letter to a friend:

Do you remember that conversation we had about drawing, and specifically life drawing? When you asked what it was about life drawing that I loved so much? I could tell that you suspected I just liked perving.

I was chatting to myself while doing the dishes (as ya do) and suddenly remembered why.

I’d started art classes after completing my ecology studies. I was there to be challenged, and to turn my nature photos into a different form of art – painting, drawing, printmaking, etc. Life drawing sounded like something I’d need to suffer though in order to access the good stuff. I thought geez, who’d want to draw people? People suck!

So I turned up with low expectations and a grin and bear it attitude. Then, when the teacher said just to draw what you saw, to ‘feel’ the outlines as you draw, all the chitter chatter of my mind fell away and I just saw and drew. It was a silent space in my head, a peaceful space, and at the end was a picture that I liked. I’d not looked at the human body so carefully before, or even noticed the more subtle differences in anatomy between the sexes. A lot of time had passed since my early 20s when I’d been a nudist living in communes!

At the end of the course I reflected on the art certificate and realised it had given me a new appreciation of my humanity. Printmaking was a joyful, physical experience of preparation combined with ‘happy accidents’, and life drawing had given me peace and restored my human dignity. I no longer hated myself and my species quite so much.

So I guess I like to revisit that group experience from time to time. I can only draw so much of my own body – can’t see it from the back. 🙂

Young friend

Content warning: suicide

Two years ago I lost a young friend.

We met in a secret Facebook group for trans and gender diverse people. He lived interstate, was struggling and asked the group one night for people to chat with, as he was feeling very lonely and depressed. It took guts to be so open and vulnerable and he warranted a kind response, so I added him to my friend list and chatted. We didn’t seem to ‘click’ but we stayed friends and I appreciated his humour. He felt socially awkward and I could relate, so made allowances for that in our interactions. After all, we’d never met in person and had no other senses to rely on.

From time to time I purge my friend list of people who no longer interact with me, as I don’t see the point of unsociable contacts in social media. So I used to scroll through the list and wonder how he was doing, then check his page for recent posts. We no longer chatted much by mid-January, but I cared about him. It sounded as though things were improving socially – he’d found new friends, joined peer support groups and begun to medically transition. There were still times of uncertainty and sadness but overall he seemed happy. I’d ‘like’ the occasional post and leave it at that.

Then I deactivated my Facebook account. I think it was the day of the US president’s inauguration in January. I was overwhelmed and needed to focus on kick-starting my usual activities after recovering from surgery. I didn’t warn anyone, just deactivated my account and got stuck into other things.

After a few weeks I logged back in, saw his name while scrolling through my friend list, and wondered how he was. He’d made no new posts. I wondered what that was all about. Several days later I checked again and found his mother’s message to his friends: he’d died suddenly at home. She didn’t specify how. I drew my own conclusions and hoped to be wrong. I messaged her privately to express my condolences.

She said that it had come as a complete shock to her too, as he’d seemed the happiest he’d ever been. Finding a sense of belonging, accessing suitable treatment and making new friends had meant the world to him. She’d buried him under his chosen name, rather than his birth name, and now had his urn on her mantelpiece with a printed Facebook photo of him fooling around with one of those new friends.

I felt heartbroken, which seemed an overreaction. Ok, it’s an exaggeration. I was deeply shocked and sad and that was to be expected. It was ok to have a weight on my chest and inconveniently leaky eyes. I hoped it was an accident rather than suicide, and I hoped he was at peace. I hoped he could feel the love of those who grieved.

I felt for that family, and still do. I’m also amazed and grateful that they loved him for his true self. He deserved that. We all do of course, but sometimes it seems like one of those impossible dreams.

If you are reading this while feeling despair yourself, please know that you’re not alone and that there are people who genuinely care. I’ve used crisis lines myself, as it’s part of my Staying Alive plan. If you need help, please reach out to a trusted friend, support worker or a crisis line. We see you and we love you.

Where to begin? How?

Where do you even start when trying to figure yourself out in terms of gender? I don’t know about you, but I blundered around in all directions. I just knew that something was off, NQR, and I wanted – needed – to discuss it with someone.

It’s tempting to say that I started by reading blogs and books and by trying to talk with my friends, but it went further back than the internet and was less conscious than a concerted search. It emerged briefly during peer counselling and submerged again for safety. Looking back at the past thirty years at least – at my adult life – is unnerving and often sad, as I now recognise those moments when I recognised the truth and promptly suppressed it.

It was such a scary topic to bring up: “Hey, do you ever feel like you’re not actually female?” I was scared of seeing that “Oh boy, we have a live one here” face.  It was hard enough coming out to friends and family as lesbian, then finding that I still didn’t fit in. I was scared my friends would think me too weird and desert me. I mean, in the 1990s I participated in group therapy for social anxiety and every social situation since has felt awkward regardless, as though I were only just managing to pass as human and the slightest thing could unmask me. Imagine what might happen if I unmasked myself as a different kind of human?

I’ll tell you what – I’d feel a hell of a lot better! But I didn’t know that then.

I talked with counsellors, therapists and psychologists and made no progress. I didn’t know whether it was the way I approached it or their lack of training to help give me the language, but it was frustrating. I felt like a child who hadn’t yet learned speech and had a pain. It hurts here, here and here. Help! Can you help?

It was frustrating. It was fucking lonely.

Finally, one day I was browsing one of the town’s less mainstream shops and encountered DUDE Magazine. The relief and longing I felt while flicking through it made me feel emotional and I teared up. My memory is that a staff member approached me. This young, warm, queer person broached the subject of gender with me, saying that she’d had the feeling that we’d eventually have this conversation. Again with the relieved tears. Finally someone who knew stuff, knew people, and was happy to help.  I felt enveloped in warmth, safety and hope.

They put me in touch with a trans guy, who added me to a secret Facebook group, which led me to meeting another trans guy my own age and venturing out of town to a genderqueer social group. My social terror persisted but for different reasons. This time I knew the gender stuff was OK but would we get along, 1:1? Would I be rejected for other reasons? Still, it was good. It was progress.

By this time I’d also connected with a new mental health support organisation, registered with the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) and come out to them. To their credit and my infinite relief and appreciation they barely blinked and simply warmly focused on practical ways to support me. Again I feel choked up remembering this. I kept thinking finally, a support organisation that knows how to support!

Support until then, for anxiety and depression-related issues, had been spotty at best. The worst of them had significantly compounded my problems. Then there were people who tried to divide me into distinct categories and send me different places for each, as though I were a car that needed washing here, windscreen replaced there, and new tyres over there. Hard to believe that this even needs to be said, but we’re humans not machines and therefore a holistic approach makes total sense.

It made no sense at all to tell me to see a (non-existent) LGBTIQA specialist in this small town because they were too busy/disinterested to undertake the necessary training themselves. It made no sense to refer me to the city when they knew travel was problematic for me. I wanted to remind these highly paid ‘professionals’ that a) they work for a publicly-funded health care service, b) approximately 10% of the population is LGBTIQA and c) yes, the way we are treated often results in a disproportionately high percentage of mental health concerns. We matter. We might not always disclose our sexuality or gender, given your astounding arrogance and ignorance, but we’re here and need proper health care. That’s your job, so get on with it.

Agh! Sometimes mental health professionals do my head in.

Unfortunately this is too often the case, if you ask trans people directly or read various reports such as ‘Female to Male (FtM) Transgender Experiences in Australia: A National Study (SpringerBriefs in Sociology)’ by Jones et al, 2015.  

Thank God for support groups. Really. I give thanks to the universe and to the groups specifically, regularly. I’d still be lost in the wilderness without them. I obtained the information and moral support needed to pursue the surgery I’d wanted for almost 30 years, and reading the daily posts reminded me that I wasn’t alone in needing support. Occasionally I was even able to pipe up and offer an ear, or some information I’d gleaned earlier.

Being part of groups also led to friendships. Kind of obvious I guess, but not for me. I’m still tentative about friendships conducted mostly online, but sometimes they too have been lifesavers. Being able to chat online at crucial points has been amazing. And my only hospital visitor – a friend who defied my “no visitors please” request – was someone I’d connected with online and met in person only once before. They buzzed around my hospital room like a joyful, thoughtful bee, bringing a superfoods smoothie and brotherly love. So good.

Given my previous experiences with therapists, one of the best parts of the support groups was the sharing of names of suitably-qualified professionals. When I told a psychology student about this, they replied in a way that made us sound like deluded, dishonest drug addicts. I mean, here we are, helping each other get the properly qualified health care we need, and to the student it sounded like we were sharing names of crack dealers. Is that what surgery and hormone treatment sounds like to people who aren’t trans or gender-diverse? Crack? If so, spare me your twisted, poisonous thought bubbles. This is precisely why we need health workers to be properly informed.