I would have been 19 or 20 years old. My father was giving my family and I – that is, myself, my spouse and our young child- a lift somewhere, when I mentioned that I had recently changed my name by deed poll and planned to start living as male with the help of male hormone treatment. My father made a half-interested noise and said something mundane, I forget exactly what, to acknowledge the news. I remember thinking that while I had not expected any big drama over the issue, he seemed even less concerned or interested than I had imagined. I felt a moment of pleasure that my dad was such a nonjudgemental guy. I reflected with satisfaction that after several years of my being undeniably and scandalously tattooed, pierced, promiscuous, mad and almost permanently intoxicated, I had well and truly managed to condition my kin so that they were not shocked by anything I might do (with the possible exception of holding down a job that could be talked about in the presence of respectable people, or anyone from Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs). After this brief interlude we went on to speak of other matters.
Several months later, speaking to my father on the phone, he asked me if I had a cold; it sounded as though I was losing my voice. I explained that it was just my voice breaking because I’d been taking testosterone. He seemed completely surprised. I reminded him that I had told him about this in the car a while back, and he responded, still sounding rather dazed, that he had dismissed this as a joke. He just couldn’t imagine me wanting to be a man. I’d never shown any sign of it, as far as he was concerned. Why, he asked me, had I taken pains to look so feminine – I’d even saved up and bought myself breast implants as soon as I was 18, which was not so long ago after all – if I didn’t want to be a woman? As a prostitute, looking feminine and being busty were important for my job, but now that I’d found myself a tattoo apprenticeship, I explained, I could explore other ways for my body to be. He asked a few more questions- mainly about lower surgery; if I planned to have it, what it involved, etc. and then said I’d given him enough information to digest for the time being. Before hanging up he said he hoped I’d made the right choice, that all he wanted for me in life was happiness and he didn’t care what route I took to find it. The last message is one he’s always given me, one which has sustained me and made me feel loved through many a bad time, and one which is fully reciprocated.
The fact that he hadn’t believed me at first made a good anecdote. It still makes me smile today. I notice a parallel with other times. For example, I’d told a friend when I first knew I was pregnant but then, when a baby arrived a little under 9 months later, he’d been completely shocked and said that he’d thought I was joking and never seen any sign that it was true. I must, I suppose, have had a way of downplaying what other people see as big news to the extent that they can’t always take it in (it was big news to me of course, but I did make an effort not to bang on about it. It would have seemed rather self-centred to do so, considering the number of babies being born in the world every day. I find it fascinating that something so life-changing can at once be so completely mundane). Or perhaps I talked such a vast amount of bollocks because I was usually drunk or high that it was impossible to sort the grains of truth from the chaff of my conversation. Possibly a combination of both factors.
My other kin fared a bit less well with the news. My mother, I don’t remember telling. I may have mentioned it, but more likely she heard it first from my father or some other family member. It’s only in the last few years that I feel able to have a real conversation with my mother. At that time I’d speak to her comfortably but it was all small talk, or conversations which revolved around the baby. Knowing that it could lead to a revival of the bitter fighting that had characterised our relationship when she, my father and I all lived together, we’d instinctively avoid most topics that went to the heart of anything else that was important in my life.
My child was too young to have known anything different from having one transsexual parent. At school age, he became aware that it was unusual and could be a problem. I was asked various questions from time to time (“Do you have any man parts, mummy?”) and for a while we fought a silly battle over what name I would answer to, a battle to which I eventually conceded defeat with good grace. I’d wanted to be called by my first name just as my parents had been known to me, and for some time would pointedly ignore him when he called me “mummy” (the name by which strangers would always, maddeningly, refer to me whenever talking to my child) . I remember being told that “’mum’ is a role, not a whole identity” by my own mother.. the same person, ironically, who eventually explained that the name was so important to my child and convinced me to accept it myself. “It’s so important to him to feel that although you don’t live together and you aren’t a woman any more, you still want to be his mother. He really needs a mother. He misses you. It’s hard for him.”
My partner and I separated a couple of years after I began my transition. There were so many factors involved that I hesitate to blame my transition to any real extent. Issues involved ranged from my mental health problems to my work in the sex industry to the fact that we had both been young when we married and the primary thing we’d had in common was the vast amount of illicit substances we liked to consume. However, my being increasingly read as male was certainly one of a number of issues that caused a problem between us. He was not only a heterosexual man but one which, with the benefit of having been surrounded by very queer-friendly people for the last near-decade of my life, I now recognise as just a tiny bit homophobic. The perception of us as a gay couple was not one he could live with, and the perception of us as a straight couple was not one I could live with. This clash of identities overshadowed the complex issue of actually working out whether my partner could still love and be attracted to a particular man if that man happened to be the same person as the young woman he’d fallen in love and in lust with. If everything else had been good in our relationship I might have a definite answer to that question, but as things are, I don’t think we ever will. On a happier note, I should mention that our break-up was without animosity and that these days we hold family/friend status to each other on account of our shared offspring, enjoying comfortable if infrequent contact.
At work, if there was an occasional negative comment about my transition, I responded to it with all the rage one might expect from a person who recently started taking steroids. Such comments were not generally repeated in my hearing.
Early in my transition, I was making a lot of new friends through my new career, my newly single status and my testosterone-fuelled interest in scenes where I could pick up queer/bisexual people for sex. Most of the friends I’d had before were people I’d met through or with my ex-husband, and fell away when I was no longer part of that couple. Whether any of them had a problem with my transition, I didn’t know or care. I never saw any sign that they did. Clearly, the new friends I made were fine with my gender-variance. We wouldn’t have become friends if that was a problem.
To surmise, I was spared any significant negativity about transition from my loved ones because I had already spent my teenage years fighting the battle to be accepted for whoever and whatever I was, and been uncompromising in cutting out of my affections any person who was not broadminded enough to do this.
At the same time as my transition, my career as a tattooist was beginning, my periods of sobriety were lengthening and my periods of depression and madness were shortening. All these positive changes make it impossible to say to what extent transition improved my life and how much of the improvement was down to other factors. However, my father, whose opinion counts for a lot with me, stated: “I had reservations when you told me, but now I think you made the right choice to start taking testosterone. I don’t think female hormones agree with your body chemistry. I saw you get so depressed as soon as you hit puberty and you seemed to finally get over it as soon as you changed your hormone levels. I’m so glad you’ve figured out how to be happy; happiness is all I ever wanted for you, I don’t care how you do it.”
And that, readers, is about the best thing I can imagine a parent saying to their child. I hope I’ll be saying the same thing to my child when he’s grown up. My biggest wish for him is the ability to choose those paths in life which lead to happiness.