Voice Changes and Singing: The trials and tribulations of transitioning from boy soprano

This gets a bit technical with music-related terms. Apologies for that but it’s hard to explain it any other way.

When I made the decision to start taking testosterone, I was excited about the prospect of my speaking voice changing. I’d always felt self conscious about it, and wanted a lower voice. But as someone who has always loved singing, and as the director of a choir, I was worried about what would happen to my singing voice.

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I knew my singing voice would inevitably change, but I didn’t know how much, and how difficult it would be for me to control my new voice as it dropped. I was warned that it might be hard to sing at all for a while. Given that I teach my choir by ear — so I sing every phrase to them for them to repeat back to me — I wasn’t sure how that was going to work out.

The changes were slow and subtle at first. Initially I noticed that my lower range expanded and became stronger quite quickly. Within a couple of months I was able to sing tenor which had previously been the part I struggled to reach low enough for. At that stage I could still manage the soprano (the highest part), but the quality of the sound I made started to deteriorate. As my lower range strengthened and gained resonance, the higher notes became reedy and more like a falsetto than a true soprano. After about five or six months on T I could still get the high notes out, but I sounded like someone who’d been breathing in helium.

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At that point I experienced a more sudden and noticeable voice drop, and the top end of the soprano was more or less wiped out. I started to rely on playing a descant recorder, or singing an octave down when I was teaching. Soon it was not only difficult to sing the soprano part, but also the alto. And where previously I’d always sung the bass part an octave up when teaching, that was becoming a challenge too and I could just about manage to sing it in the correct register.

This is when I noticed a peculiar problem that’s pretty unique to someone teaching a choir with a voice that’s going through male puberty. Once I started to switch octaves, it totally threw my choir. I realised that this is because when you sing, you instinctively pitch your voice in the place where you can sing the tune. But this is different for the average male and female voices. Someone with an adult male voice trying to sing along with a female voice will automatically drop down an octave. Likewise a woman or child trying to sing along with an adult male voice will instinctively pitch an octave up.

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The problem for me, and my choir, is that at the moment my voice is stuck in a place that’s very much between male and female. I can sing almost as low as most cisgender men, but I don’t have the same resonance or sound quality that they do. So when I sing the bass line in the correct register, the basses in my choir still try and drop an octave below me — which puts their voices in the basement and is impossible for them to manage. Conversely when I sing the soprano part an octave down, the sopranos still try to match my pitch and usually end up singing too low. So it’s all fun and games as I have to try and sing higher, and then I squawk and make horrible noises. But as someone in my choir said to me this week when I came out with a sound like a dying donkey, “We’re not laughing at you, we’re laughing with you.” I guess that’s the best I can ask for 🙂

 

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Glass Walls One Year On: An update and a thank you.

Being transgender is a slow, gradual process of change. There is no one day you can look back on and think: That was when my life changed forever.

There are many significant milestones along the way, and dates that feel worth remembering. The day you first admitted it to yourself. The day you told someone else. The day you came out publicly (if indeed you ever did, because it’s not a prerequisite). The day you changed your name legally. The day you started hormones. Surgery dates. The first time you get called sir instead of madam by a stranger (or vice versa).

Today is a significant date for me, because this time last year I posted on my real name Facebook profile (as oppose to my author one) and told a lot of people who had known me for a very long time that I was actually a man on the inside. I also explained that I’d spent a very long time feeling ‘wrong’ and not quite knowing why, and I hoped by transitioning I would be able to get to a place where I felt ‘right’ at last.

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Around that time I wrote a poem, Glass Walls, about how I’d finally dug through the denial to come to my realisation. In that poem I talked about how I’d been trapped for a long time. I felt as if I’d reflected back what people expected to see when they looked at me. Whereas on the inside of those mirrored walls I was someone completely different… and I was lost. Breaking free of those walls seemed terrifying because I was leaving that facade to expose my true self to the world.

This time last year I was literally shaking as I pressed Post on some words that I would never be able to take back once they were out there. I knew I was choosing a road that was going to be hard, and painful. But I also hoped it would be transformative and ultimately bring me a sense of peace that I’d always been lacking.

So where am I one year on? I changed my legal name shortly after I came out. And as I’m fortunate enough to have been able to fund my treatment privately so far, I’ve now been taking testosterone for 8.5 months, and I had chest reconstruction surgery almost 4 months ago.

Chest surgery was a huge game changer. Living life free of binders (things that squash boobs flat to hide them), and sports bras is miraculous. I had a lot of anxiety leading up to the surgery but I haven’t regretted it for a second since it was done. I have huge scars, but they’re fading, and I see them as a badge of honour in my battle to free myself from that glass prison I was in for so long.

Male puberty is in full swing with unpredictable voice changes, patchy facial hair, greasy skin and spots. My face is changing to look more masculine and my body fat is redistributing to a more male pattern. I still don’t get read reliably as male, especially when I talk to people. But I don’t turn heads in the gents, and rarely get questioned about my identity on the phone anymore.

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Most importantly, I’m happier with my body and myself. After years of not knowing who I was and feeling a disconnect between my mental and physical selves; now, when I look in the mirror I recognise the guy looking back at me. Sure, he might still be an ugly duckling in puberty years, but I know who he is. And even if he never turns into a swan, I’m okay with that.

Mentally I’m in a better place than I’ve been for a very long time. This year hasn’t been easy. I’ve had to deal with a relationship break up and negotiating a new family structure at home; the stress of appointments; surgery; dating etc… But despite all of that I feel pretty good most of the time: contented, peaceful, and filled with a new confidence that whatever life throws at me, I can probably handle it.

I’m very grateful to all my family and friends who have stuck by me and supported me. Not in huge, obvious ways, but simply by getting used to my new name and pronouns, and by accepting me for who I am. It means a lot.

Thank you.

Six Months of Male Puberty: Rome wasn’t built in a day.

I passed an important milestone this week. Yesterday marked six months on testosterone for me. It seems like a good time to reflect how far I’ve come, while also being aware of how far I still have to go.

Puberty is a slow process, whether it’s the naturally occurring type or a second one induced by hormone therapy. Most of the advice and information tells trans people to expect to see changes for up to five years at least, although most of the most noticeable changes often happen in the first two years. So, six months is still relatively early days.

The changes are subtle (gradual voice drop, acquisition of facial hair, fat redistribution etc) but are gradually adding up to me being read as male by strangers more often. The weird part for me, is that I never know what assumptions other people are making about my gender. Unless they happen to use a pronoun in my presence, or an obviously gendered term like sir or the dreaded madam I have no way of telling how I’m being categorised. But given that I can wander into the men’s toilets without causing a stir — and was getting some very odd looks in the ladies the last couple of times I tried to use them — I think that on balance the world is mostly seeing me as a bloke now.

My voice is the main thing that still lets me down. It’s a lot lower than it used to be, and now technically measures in the male range.

From pre-T to now, courtesy of an iOS app called Speech Test (where do I sign up for those muscles?):

Unfortunately the lack of resonance and years of ingrained feminine speech pattern still makes me sound rather androgynous. I don’t get challenged when I give my name to banks/insurance companies etc on the phone anymore though, so that’s progress.

My family and friends are getting used to talking about me using he/him pronouns, and it makes me happy when I hear them do it. I know it’s been really weird for people who have known me for a long time, so I appreciate how hard everyone is trying with this. The closer people are to me, the harder it is, but my ex/coparent/partner-in-crime and my kids are managing to get it right 90% of the time now, so if they can manage it then I figure anyone can.

The last six months have been a rollercoaster for a variety of reasons, and being on testosterone is the least of them.

  • I’ve been busy with work, friends, and family, and dealing with the fallout of my transition. This has affected relationships in unexpected ways as well as predictable ones.
  • I’ve been getting used to being free and single (although still cohabiting incredibly amicably), and have launched myself into the insanity of online dating as a gay man.
  • I had chest surgery six weeks ago, so was busy preparing for that, and then dealing with recovery.

The most important part of this post — I feel good. I’m happy and at peace with myself in a way that is new. I’m finally starting to feel like I know who I am after years of being lost in a post female puberty wilderness of feeling fundamentally wrong. Being authentic and honest about who I am is a wonderful feeling, and I have no regrets about making that leap of faith.

So to sum up, life is crazy, and difficult at times, but it’s also pretty damn good being me.

Here’s to the next six months!

Are you a girl or a boy?

I haven’t been asked that question since I was about twelve years old, and although I realise my appearance is confusing to some people I was honestly never expecting to be asked those exact words at the age of forty-six.

The whole conversation was a shitshow. So I will do my best to recreate it here.

Setting: The local pub – in a small village where LGBTQ+ people are either absent or invisible for the most part.

Cast of characters: Me, one of my cisgender female friends, and a very drunk cis/straight bloke (who was at the bar with a group of other drunk blokes).

My friend and I are sitting at a table having a drink and a chat. Drunk bloke swaggers over and sits in the extra chair at our table, manspreading as if his balls are the size of a small country. He hugs and kisses my friend, then turns to me and sizes me up (as much as he can given that he probably can’t focus properly).

Drunk bloke: She’s fucking great isn’t she? I love her.
Adds meaningfully: And her husband’s fucking great too. He’s one of my best mates.

Me: Yeah, I know man. They’re both great. I was at their wedding recently.

Drunk bloke: Stares and looks confused after hearing me speak…. Are you a girl or a boy?

Me: rolling my eyes. I’m a boy.

Drunk bloke: Turns to speak to my friend rather than me. But she sounds like a girl.

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Accurate gif is accurate

My friend: He’s a boy. This is my mate. We’ve known each other for years. He knows Andy too.

Me: rolling my eyes more and getting impatient for him to fuck off. Look. I’m a man, but I’m transgender. I was born a girl, and now I’m man. My voice isn’t that low yet because I’ve only been on testosterone for six months.

Drunk bloke: Looks slightly bewildered but spreads his hands placatingly. Oh, fair play. Fair play. Well, you take care of her. She’s great, and her husband’s a top bloke.

Me: Sighs. Look mate, I’m not into women anyway. I’m gay. So her virtue is safe with me.

Drunk bloke: Stares.

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I can practically hear the gears churning in his alcohol addled brain at this point while he tries to wrap his brain around the intersection of gender and sexuality, and probably fails.

I decide that challenging his views about treating women as possessions who need to be claimed, owned, and defended by men would be too much for one evening. I think his head might explode if I introduce another new concept.

At that point he clearly decides I’m not a threat, and buggers off back to his cronies at the bar.

I wonder whether he’ll remember this conversation this morning?

Gender Euphoria is Real

So… a lot of my blog posts have talked about gender dysphoria. Where gender dysphoria is a state of unease, sadness, or distress that’s directly linked to someone’s gender identity.

Well, gender euphoria is a thing too. And it’s basically the opposite. So gender euphoria occurs when you finally feel that your inside is matching your outside and let me tell you, it’s pretty great. It’s like planets finally coming into alignment after a million years of circling around and not quite coinciding.

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Today I had one of those moments. I’m only 3 weeks and 3 days post top surgery. And my surgeon said I should wait 4 weeks before starting to run again. But I’m a terrible patient, and I think I’ve bounced back faster than most and everything is healing up just fine. So today, I put on my running kit and left the house with the intention of half walking/half jogging for half an hour or so.

But once I started running, I didn’t want to stop. I’m a big believer in the whole ‘listen to your body’ thing. And my body was saying:
Dude, seriously. This is fucking awesome. You’re awesome. Don’t stop. Run like the wind!

So I ran (like a slightly sluggish breeze, but whatever) for about twenty minutes, and it was BRILLIANT. Running, with a vest top on and no sports bra. This is the stuff that pre-transition trans men’s dreams are made of. Seriously. I fantasised about this for months as my surgery date approached. Any time I felt nervous, or had doubts that I was making the right decision, all I had to do was put a sports bra on and remind myself that top surgery would mean I never needed to wear one again.

Disclaimer: Yes, I know that most cis women hate sports bras too. Who wouldn’t? They’re designed by Satan and are awful… and boobs are a pain in the arse when you’re running blah blah. But presumably you like your boobs most of the time, even if you hate sports bras. And if you really hate your boobs in every possible way, then I can give you the number of an excellent gender therapist to discuss this with.

 

 

 

Update: Chest Reconstruction Surgery

Greetings, blog followers!

Trigger warning: contains some references to surgical things, but the gory details are mostly in external links rather than in my post. 

So, as many of you already know (if you follow me on social media type places) I had chest reconstruction surgery on Monday 19th of June with Mr Andrew Yelland in Brighton. The goal of chest reconstruction (or ‘top surgery’) is to create a natural male-looking chest.

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I’m on day 4 post op now, and recovery is going pretty well as far as I can tell. My chest is currently covered in bomb proof dressings and I have to wear a tight compression binder over the top of that. It’s a little disconcerting having no clue what’s going on under there (stitches and staples apparently). But I have very little pain and everything feels okay, so I’m working on the assumption that all is well. I get the big reveal at my post op appointment on Thursday next week.

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I didn’t really know what to expect from recovery, so have been going with the flow. Happily, it’s been much less painful than I was expecting. I’m more uncomfortable because of the binder than the actual incisions. The heat wave during my first two days of recovery didn’t help with that either. Sleeping is tough, because I’m trying to stay propped up so I don’t accidentally roll onto my side. But all in all I feel mostly okay. Just tired, and bored of sitting around.

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For those of you who are interested in the details of the procedure I had (double incision with nipple grafts), you can read more about it on my surgeon’s website here. I didn’t have drains, because he no longer advocates their use. The compression binder should take care of fluid build up, and he will drain any that’s accumulated when I see him for my post op appointment next week. Other than that detail, though, this is pretty accurate.

If you’re interested in the truly gory details, I found a video on YouTube of the same surgery performed by a surgeon in the US. The basic procedure is similar, although the exact details might be different – I don’t think I had any liposuction.

I’m very glad I didn’t watch it before I had my surgery. It’s not for the fainthearted and I definitely don’t recommend you watch it while eating. But it’s utterly fascinating. What with the nipple resizing cookie cutter, and the staple gun they used on his nipples, I now feel rather like a cross between the Great British Bake Off and a primary school art project.

 

Ring Theory: How to support someone in crisis, from a transgender perspective

A couple of years ago, when a mutual friend was going through a hard time, someone I know shared a link to an article in a Facebook Group.

How not to say the wrong thing by Silk and Goldman.

I recommend reading the full article, because it explains Ring Theory beautifully in the context of someone with a physical illness. But the theory also works well from a transgender perspective.

In a nutshell, Ring Theory is about how to offer appropriate support to someone who is going through a crisis, while acknowledging the ripple effect of that crisis and how it also hurts people who are close to that person. It recognises that they may need support too.

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The idea of it is that the person who is going through something difficult is at the centre of the rings. Then the people most directly affected by the crisis are in the next circle: partner/spouse or parents/children depending on the situation*. Close friends and family of the person in the centre come next, followed by the wider circle of friends/more distant family and then acquaintances/neighbours etc.

The rules for supporting the people in the circles are very simple.

Comfort in. Dump out.

You offer comfort towards the centre of the circle, and dump/vent your own worries/anxieties and anger outwards.

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In my model, I have the person who is transitioning at the centre of those circles. The trans person gets to vent and offload on people whom they trust to listen without judgement. But the people supporting them need to take their struggles with that person’s transition elsewhere. Just like you would (I hope) never tell a person who has cancer how hard it is for you to see them sick and in pain, a trans person probably doesn’t want to hear how challenging it is for you that they are transitioning.

We don’t need our friends and family to tell us that there is a period of mourning as the person they thought they knew fades away to be replaced by this new, authentic version of ourselves. I’m not saying for a minute that those feelings of grief/loss aren’t completely valid and understandable. But expressing that to the trans person can be harmful.

Believe me. We already know.

The fear and guilt over hurting our loved ones is what keeps so many of us in the closet for so long. We’ve beaten ourselves up about it in therapy, we’ve lost sleep over it, we’ve learned to live with that guilt in order to move forward. We get that it’s hard for you too, and we hate that we’re the cause of pain or distress for people we care about. But when you need to vent about your frustrations, please do that to someone else, because we already have enough of our own pain to deal with and can’t take on yours as well.

~~~

* For someone like me who has children, my kids are obviously directly affected. But I exclude them from the comfort in/dump out rule because being their parent takes priority for me. So they are allowed to dump on me as much as they like.

Toilet Trouble

In which I overshare about how fucking stressful it is being trans and needing to pee.

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Before I realised I was transgender, I already knew about the whole transgender toilet issue (or bathroom issue for Americans). I was aware of it in a theoretical way, and was full of righteous anger about the discriminatory bathroom laws in some US states. I remember thinking about how hard it must be to have to deal with that, especially early in transition — or for people who identify and/or present in a non binary way.

I wasn’t wrong.

And even if you live in a country without prohibitive laws on which toilet you use, it’s still pretty bloody stressful.

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I’ve now reached the stage where it’s an issue for me on a personal level. A couple of weeks ago, I was in a pub in Fowey (a small town in Cornwall) and went to the women’s toilets as normal. It was empty when I went in, but when I came out of the cubicle there were three young women chatting. As I emerged, they all went silent and stared at me. Then one of them said “Oh!” in a tone that made me feel like shit on her shoe. It’s hard to be sure what prompted that reaction, because I didn’t stick around to ask why. But given that people are starting to call me ‘sir’ occasionally, I’m 99% sure that it was because she initially read me as male.

That was the first time I’ve been made to feel unwelcome or discriminated against in a female space. But it’s understandable now people are starting to read me as male. The last thing I want to do is make women feel unsafe or threatened. So as a result of that, I’ve started to try and use male toilets at least some of the time — because I no longer feel comfortable using the women’s.

But I don’t feel remotely comfortable in the men’s either. I’m still in an awkward non-binary limbo as far as my presentation goes. I’m occasionally read as male at first glance, but usually read as female when I have any significant interaction with people because of my voice (which hasn’t changed much yet). Because of this, using the men’s toilets is a huge source of anxiety. I know it’s highly unlikely I’ll be challenged, because I don’t look too out of place, and most men don’t notice or care who is in the toilet with them (unlike women). But the worry is that if I was challenged, then I’d have to justify my presence there and my voice would give me away as something other than a cisgender man. That’s tied into uncomfortable feelings of shame for me, feelings about not being ‘male enough,’ and about not belonging in that place.

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There is also a deep fear for my safety. When you’ve been socialised as female you are taught from an early age to be wary of male strangers, and to avoid all-male spaces. Sorry to all the cisgender men I know and love. I know it’s #notallmen, but those are the messages most people raised as female internalise. Because of this I still feel unsafe walking alone in the dark, and I still find it hard to get in a taxi with a male driver, or to be alone in a train carriage with another man. So going against that ingrained instinct and walking into a public male toilet — not knowing who else might be in there — is utterly terrifying to me.

Yesterday I travelled to London and spent the day there. I used it as an opportunity to experiment a little with which toilets I used. I felt okay using the men’s at Bristol Parkway station. It was early, and quiet… but not too quiet. I couldn’t face the bustle of busy toilets at Paddington (either the male or female ones) so I used the loo on the train instead. I ‘manned up’ and used the men’s in a restaurant at lunchtime — and nearly had a panic attack in the process because there were two other guys in there at the time — but I did it, and managed to avoid all eye-contact or the need to speak. Yay me.

On the journey home (via Salisbury because of train cancellations) I didn’t feel safe using the men’s at the station, because there were groups of rowdy, drunk blokes around. So I used the women’s, and put up with feeling out of place and having some of the women looking at me oddly. I also felt weirdly humiliated by the experience of having to use the women’s, as if I was misgendering/outing myself by doing it. That familiar feeling of shame again. (I hate shame. I think it’s my least favourite emotion, and I should probably write a whole blog post about how shame is inextricably linked with being transgender for me).

So, this is my life now. Whenever I’m out in public and need a wee I have to think about these things. Where can I go? Will there be cubicles in the men’s? Will I feel safe? Will I make women feel unsafe?

It sucks. And this is why we need more gender neutral toilets.

So, if you’re ever in a public toilet and notice someone who is gender ambiguous, or who you think might be in the wrong bathroom. Don’t stare, don’t challenge them, just let them get on and do what they need to do.

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Chances are, they’re in exactly the right place and they just need to pee too.

Self-image, Dysphoria and Seeing the Whole Person

Navel gazing ahoy…

I’m now three months into hormone therapy, and the changes are subtle – almost imperceptible. Yet things must be changing, because before I started on T nobody ever gendered me correctly. I’d get called ‘madam’ in shops, and have polite elderly gentlemen insisting on holding doors open for me (usually when I was trying to hold doors open for them) and saying “Ladies first.” Now, people are starting to read me as male, or to at least be unsure enough that they hesitate before calling me madam. Thank God.

Even so, I can still count on one hand the number of times I’ve knowingly been read as male” the guard on the train; another guy on a train; a bloke serving me in a pub; a group of Mean Girls in a womens’ toilet in a pub in Cornwall (who triggered a wave of transgender-related toilet anxiety. Thanks for that ladies).

The weird thing is: whatever these people are seeing, is not what I see when I look in the mirror. But when I started pondering on this, I realised that don’t see myself as a whole at all. I see myself in pieces. This may well not be a trans-specific issue,  I’m sure some cisgender people might experience a similar disconnect for different reasons, but in my case it’s related to gender dysphoria.

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I spent years thinking I was female and hating my body (also not a trans specific issue), but not understanding exactly why I hated it. I suffered with disordered eating for a long time, and it’s only now that I realise I wasn’t trying to diet/exercise to make the most of my feminine assets. Rather, I was trying to lose my curves and change my body into a more androgynous shape. Without the help of testosterone, I could never do enough, so I was constantly dissatisfied.

During those unhappy times, I learned to dissociate from my body as a coping strategy. I got remarkably good at ignoring the bits I disliked: hips, chest, stomach – anything soft and squishy basically; and focusing on the parts I was happier with: my shoulders, my relatively square waist/torso, the muscle I gained in the gym.

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This dissociation has continued since I’ve started to transition. Most of the time I can filter out the things that cause me dysphoria even when I look in the mirror. But as a result, I have no idea how I look to others. I’m so focused on individual features (sorted into a mental checklist of like/hate/indifferent) that I don’t see the whole. The only times I can see how I appear to others is in a photograph, and then I’m usually disappointed. I think I have the opposite of body dysmorphic disorder, because in my head I’m at least 5’10” and have Channing Tatum’s butt. Reality sucks.

Yet my self-consciousness is such that I don’t expect that magic invisibility shield to work for anyone else. On the contrary, I always expect other people to immediately zero in on the feminine characteristics that I usually avoid seeing in myself. So, when someone calls me sir, or interacts with me in any other way that makes me think they’ve read me correctly as male, I’m still terribly surprised about it.

I guess when we look at other people, we see the whole. When assessing someone’s gender, which we do unconsciously in a split second, we weigh up the visible evidence so the balance tips one way or the other (because as a society, most of us like to put people in binary boxes – not saying it’s right, just saying it’s a fact). As I keep taking T, the tiny physical changes are gradually starting to tip the scales towards Male, which feels good, even if I can’t see it myself yet.

I’m looking forward to the day when being gendered correctly isn’t something to get excited about any more. I wonder how long it will take? And I wonder how long my brain will take to catch up with that reality?

Visibility and Authenticity

Today is International Transgender Day of Visibility.

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Being forty-five years old, married with two kids, and living in a small community, I never had the choice of flying under the radar if I was going to come out and transition. This was one of the fears that held me back. Because being visible isn’t always easy.

Many transgender people would put themselves in physical danger by disclosing their status, and plenty of others just want to live their lives and not have everyone know their history. The choice to not disclose is a valid one and nobody should ever feel pressure to be ‘out’ if they don’t want to be.

However, given that I have no option but to be open about my transition and ‘female history,’ I decided to try writing about my experiences in the hope that it might be useful to others.

When I first started blogging, I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about sharing something so personal. Historically I’ve never liked writing about myself (preferring to tell the stories of fictional characters rather than my own) because I was always incredibly anxious about how other people perceived me. In retrospect, I think a lot of my social anxiety was based on me not having a strong sense of self. I didn’t know who I was, and I defined myself through other people – so their good opinion really mattered to me. Since coming out and living authentically, I feel more confident about who I am, and therefore I’m less desperate for other people’s approval.

If I can help just one trans or gender questioning person on their path, or help a cisgender person be a better ally to other trans people in their life, then pouring a bit of my soul out onto a page is worth it.

And since today is a day for spreading the word here are some useful links:

Transgender FAQ: http://www.glaad.org/transgender/transfaq

Tips for allies: http://www.glaad.org/transgender/allies

And a shout out for non-binary people:
http://everydayfeminism.com/2014/12/myths-non-binary-people/

Peace out ❤