Claiming life – a testimony

The story that follows is written by a person who recognised he was transgender and who claimed the gender she recognised as her own.

Mardi Gras Parade, March 2 – “fearless means living our lives in a courageous way …” Photo: Jeffrey Feng

Today in the media it is relatively easy to find stories of transgender women who are successful. People with notable careers or who have a public profile through their work advocating for transgender rights are interviewed and written about. Those life stories are inspiring and offer encouragement and hope that being transgender does not prevent success.

But when I read or hear about their lives, there is something missing – a certain ordinariness – an everyday quality of someone who might be your neighbour for many years in an ordinary job. What follows is the testimony of one such “ordinary” transgender person. The quotes are there because being transgender is far from ordinary. It is estimated that between one in 1,000 and one in 10,000 are transgender.

For over 50 years I was known as Peter*, a father with two children who had been happily married for 28 years. I liked my job, and even though inside something wasn’t right, outwardly I was relaxed and easy-going. If you met me, you would never guess what was going on inside my mind.

You see, despite looking male, that was not how I viewed myself. It wasn’t that I wanted to be like or become a woman, but in my thinking I had a profound sense that I simply was a woman. Of course, I never experienced important parts of being female when growing up, but despite that, being a boy and later a man was never my group or tribe. It is very difficult to explain, and for many years I didn’t understand it myself, but a man in a man’s body I was not.

Around men I always felt a strong sense of otherness. While with women they were my group. In one sense, it is as simple as that. The connection with women and their lives that I read and heard went far beyond sympathy or empathy. Their stories spoke to, shaped and influenced me. Women’s stories have always been a big part of my experience and understanding of the world. But despite that, I didn’t have a way of understanding how I fitted into the world of women.

Pressure and conditioning from society (and a distinct lack of information) meant I fell into the role of living as a man in my 20s and 30s. I found I could live that way, and by effectively repressing a whole range of emotions and thoughts, would keep hidden a side of me that was always present in the background.

It wasn’t that I was depressed or unhappy all the time, but there was something missing. An unease that was expressed in small ways like avoiding looking in mirrors and hating the idea of photos or videos including me. I didn’t particularly care about my appearance or look after my health like I should have. Family and friends probably thought I was laid-back and self-assured, while in reality it was more like not caring and self-loathing.

Time goes by, and confusion about who I am is not getting any less. In my 40s information starts to filter through to my world that there is a word for what I experience. I discover the word transgender. It means the body is the opposite of the identified gender. Finally, something to make sense of how I experience the world! It was there for me to see well before my “discovery”, but fear of what it would mean to my relationships, meant I wouldn’t face it. But such denial is only effective for a certain amount of time before it must be faced.

Now I am Patricia* and the difference to my quality of life is dramatic. There are downsides for sure, but the upsides more than make up for the bad. To say that in my earlier life I was a zombie going through the motions doesn’t do justice to the good times of the past, but there is a grain of truth in that idea. Now I can be the real me, fully alive. The positive effect this has made in my relationships and friendships is significant.

So today I live as a woman. What that means for me is that I start my day and get dressed differently from before. My wardrobe is full of clothing bought in the women’s department. In one sense, what I wear is unimportant. I could pull on an old pair of my guy jeans topped with my favourite Space Invaders t-shirt, or whatever. Hey, girls can wear anything, right? I would still be a woman. Plain jeans and t-shirt are for everyone!

But if I dress that way, because of my height and general features, I am going to be called “sir” by those I meet and be identified as a man. Then what is called social gender dysphoria hits me hard. The distress of being referred to by a gender you are not is real and painful.

So it is easier to wear my women’s clothes. Wearing them signals to everyone that I think of myself as a woman. Even if I have a slight five o’clock shadow so that I look unusual, most people get it and use the right title or pronoun. In fact, I have been positively overwhelmed by how accepting strangers can be. In shops and cafes, and generally out and about, people are mostly affirming. Occasionally curious and questioning, but only rarely in a negative way. Upsides and downsides.

Of course, there are challenges. The adjustment for friends and loved ones is major, and grief or heartache always just around the corner. But with patience and communication, things can be worked out. For which I am thankful. My heart goes out to transgender brothers and sisters who are disowned or neglected by family and friends. Society still has a long way to go before we are truly accepted by all.

I expect one day science will have an explanation based on how the brain works that explains how that opposition between body (sex) and mind (gender) occurs. But humans are so complex it may take a while for the research to catch up with what is true, and in the meantime all I can do is simply live an authentic life.

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