— Why on earth am I doing this at this age?
— Because you’ve been on earth while it’s gone round the sun that many times.
— Um, no, that’s not quite what I meant.
— Oh, I see. You mean you think that what you’re doing isn’t appropriate for someone who is no longer in the first flush of youth?
— Um, not exactly … It’s just so hard for me now to see why I waited so long.
— Oh, that! Yes. Well, what kept you?
It seems almost impossible to believe that it’s only 17 months and 3 days since I told my GP and student counsellor, in the same morning, that I thought I was transgender. I’d made appointments with both of them before going on a long family holiday, but I knew from the start that I was going to tell them this. I just couldn’t put it off any more.
Out of the frying pan …
I’ve said before that when I was at school I ‘wanted to be a girl’. I couldn’t tell anyone because I felt that it was a completely bizarre thought to have. Surely no one else in the world could feel the way I did. (Just imagine if I’d had the web at my fingertips and had realised that I could do something about it. Life is full of regrets.)
It wasn’t until I was at university, I think, that I could finally conceive that I wasn’t necessarily alone. It was the popular-science magazine New Scientist that taught me this. The magazine also led me to believe that I needed a rare genetic or psychological condition in order to actually be transgender (not a word that was yet in my vocabulary, incidentally – and it’s quite likely that I conflated trans and intersex at the time too). Also, being depressed (though I didn’t realise it then), I didn’t want to push myself further into the abyss, particularly as my younger brother was by now struggling with schizophrenia (which I was terrified might be my fate too).
At about this time, or perhaps a little earlier, I had come to realise that if I was trans, I was also a lesbian. Since I didn’t know (or at least wasn’t aware of knowing) anyone who was trans or a lesbian, that combination seemed slightly beyond the bounds of probability for me. This certainly didn’t make me any more inclined to explore my strange feelings with other people. And who could I possibly tell, anyway?
… into the fires of hell
After a brief flirtation with work, in a soul-destroying job in a soul-destroying town, and a briefer flirtation with being unemployed, I went back to being an undergraduate at the age of 23. When a flatmate invited me along to his church one Sunday, I started attending regularly, and I became a Christian a year or so later, putting my devout atheist days firmly behind me. This was around the same time as my brother took his own life.
My brother’s untimely death aside, everything seemed to be going well for me: I had a long-term girlfriend doing the same course as me, and we both graduated with good degrees; I was no longer depressed. Naturally, I ascribed much of this good fortune to my new-found faith.
Though I still had what I would now call gender dysphoria, by this time I had a strong sense that this was a temptation to be resisted. Even if I hadn’t thought so, I still wouldn’t have had a scooby what to do about being trans. And even if I’d been able to transition at that stage, that would of course have made me a lesbian. With the love-the-sinner-hate-the-sin rhetoric that was used in my church to excuse mild homophobia (sitting nicely alongside the gentle misogyny and moderate young-earth creationism), I wasn’t going to go there. There are good things about Christianity, but there’s some fairly harmful stuff said and done in the name of Christ too. However, given the depression I’d come out of, I was scared of rocking the boat or throwing the baby Jesus out with the bathwater.
Feeling that I simply had to play the part of a man to stand a chance of leading a ‘normal’ Christian life, I managed to suppress my feelings of dysphoria pretty well for a few years. (Maybe I wouldn’t have had to drop out of my first attempt at a PhD if my subconscious hadn’t been working so hard at this. Who knows?) So when I got married in 1997, I had no sense that I had deliberately hidden this aspect of myself from my wife. As far as I was concerned then, it was in my past. I never told her that I’d considered I might be trans: the topic never came up. She never told me she was cis either: it’s just not something we talked about.
Out of the closet … into the unknown
After five years of marriage, we had a child. Our son is now 15. When he was only around six, we moved to another church, as a new minister had brought with him a more overt and concentrated homophobia and misogyny. This was simply too much to bear (for me, anyway). Fortunately for us as a family, our new church was very welcoming and inclusive – and has been very supportive to us all during my transition.
My ‘coming out’ as trans came about because of my current PhD – which seemed as though it was about to go the way of the first one. I had become paralysed by anxiety, but rather than ignore the problem as I had done last time, I spoke to my supervisor, who recommended I contact the student counselling service, and also to my GP, who prescribed antidepressants. I also arranged to take some time off – which I’m actually still doing. My first appointment with my counsellor (before our big family holiday) went OK, but apart from the counsellor suggesting a few general ways of coping with stress, it didn’t seem terribly helpful.
On returning from our holiday, I looked forward to my two appointments with eager anticipation, as I had decided that I was going to mention the ‘side issue’ of my gender identity. In fact, I’d done more than that: I had had my hair cut short just before the holiday, but had already made up my mind that I was going to let it grow longer from now on and that I wouldn’t be returning to the barber.
The appointment with my GP was to review my antidepressant medication, which we did. It seemed to be working (either that, or the holiday had done me a lot of good). At the end, with some trepidation, I managed to mention that there was one other thing I wanted to say. My GP was absolutely fantastic, and I left feeling a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders. After my counselling session, which focused entirely on my gender identity, I practically skipped out of the building. That day was the highlight of my year, and probably a turning point in my life. There have been harder times since, but balanced by some positives too.
So I was in my late 40s before I told anyone that I was trans. And sometimes I wish I’d come out much earlier. (Life is indeed full of regrets.) But my life would have been so different (I wouldn’t have married my wife; we wouldn’t have had our son), and I need to look to the future now rather than dwelling on what might have been: then was not the time. Whatever the future holds (and I really can’t tell what that might be any more), I’m going to be more authentically me. That at least has to be a good thing.