Deep down I’d known all my life.
But it took me several decades of denial and deep shame, and a crisis unlike anything I’ve ever experienced to finally admit to myself that I’m transgender.
It was the last of three life-changing shocks during the first half of last year.
The first was losing my wife suddenly in January. I was completely devastated, and felt as though I had stepped through a portal into an alternate reality, which I didn’t recognise and I had no way of navigating. I desperately wanted to return to the old life I knew and loved so much, but there was no way back.
Then, still reeling from this, lockdown followed just weeks later. The props that had held my life up – my spouse, work, friends, sport – were taken away from me one by one until I was alone, at home, with no other company but the truth.
One night in early May, I faced up to it. With everything that had happened, I was doing a lot of thinking about my life, how I should proceed from here and what I truly want for the time I have left remaining on this planet.
From the age of six, I’d had a yearning to be a girl. Later trying on my mum’s make-up and then occasional forays into cross-dressing, but each time thinking what I was doing was shameful and weird and strange.
But in allowing myself to face up to it, suddenly so many things in my life now made sense. It had been a deep, dark secret that I’d never been able to shake. During an incredibly happy marriage of seven years I was able to ignore it, but then the bottle broke, the genie escaped and I realised there was no way I could force her back in.
I felt elated. And utterly terrified. For two days I couldn’t get any sleep and I couldn’t think of anything else. On the morning of the third day, I rang my doctor, asked for some sleeping medication and antidepressants and uttered the words ‘I think I’m transgender’ to another human being for the first time.
I wanted to tell people, urgently. ‘Here I am! I’m trans and I’m free!’ I wanted to chorus from the rooftops. And yet at the same time I also wanted to deny that this was happening – evidently coming out involved an element of grieving for my old self and for a while I was still at the bargaining stage.
You’d think London would be full of trans support groups? Not so
Initially there was a duality in terms of what I was feeling. Yes, knowing I was trans was wonderful. But on the other hand I knew instinctively that my life would be so much easier if I was a straight, ‘normal’ male.
In those early weeks, helplines that I found from searching online were a godsend, in terms of feeling my way around this revelation.
I’ll never forget the kind volunteer at Switchboard LGBT who listened patiently as I told my story for the first time. I spoke and they listened. It was the first time I had been truly honest with anyone about my gender.
After a week or two, I gravitated to Mindline Trans+ (a mental health support phone call for trans and non binary folks). They obviously received fewer calls; after a while I got to know the voices on the other end.
They asked me my new name and my heart swelled with happiness each time I told them, and they said something sweetly complimentary in return. The name Beth seemed a natural fit: had I been born a girl I would have been Elizabeth and I’m definitely not a ‘Liz’.
But after a while, phone calls weren’t enough. I needed to be in the same space as people like me and this is where problems arose.
You’d think London would be full of trans support groups? Not so. Or at least there were none that were meeting in the real world, thanks to the pandemic.
I sent an email to one and no less than 10 weeks later received a reply regaling me about their wonderful social media platforms, and offering the opportunity to connect with others via these pages. I explained that privacy was very important to me and I had no wish to share pictures of myself to the whole world.
I needed – in fact craved – connection; real connection.
Message boards were better and in the end it was through one of these that I made contact with a fellow trans woman in last August.
The first time a friend used my new name was like nothing I’ve ever known before
We exchanged messages before meeting in a coffee shop midway between our respective home areas in September. It was great to talk to someone and know I didn’t have to explain concepts like ‘dysphoria’ (which I do to my cis-girl pals). We have stayed in contact since, updating each other on our progress.
Before then, I had started the process of telling my friends. For me, something as earth-shattering as announcing you’re a different gender needs to be done face-to-face. A casual email or phone call would be disrespectful to the friendship. But no-one was meeting anyone else. I was stuck.
Local parks became a common backdrop for those coming out conversations.
So far it’s been OK. No-one has been weird or cut me off.
The first time a friend used my new name was like nothing I’ve ever known before. We hugged and then sat next to each other and let the moment ‘settle’. Every so often I’d look up and smile and she’d smile back. Both of us knew how joyous and momentous this was.
Some of these conversations have been among the most profound moments in my life, when you experience a euphoria more potent than any pharmaceutical product and all the more affecting for it being completely natural: the sweet joy of being accepted for who you truly are.
But I know thus far I have picked off only the lowest-hanging fruit; the open-minded souls who I know are going to support me. There are many others – probably two thirds of my friendship group – whom I simply haven’t seen for over a year. And that’s before acquaintances, neighbours, work colleagues… the process is long anyway, but Covid-19 has added months, years even.
I’m not sure how these conversations will go. There will be some puzzlement, bafflement and surprise, I’m sure.
But things have changed. Part of the reason I was unable to accept who I am for so long was the marginality of transgender people for much of my lifetime. If people like me are regarded, at best, figures of fun and morbid curiosity and, at worst, grotesque anomalies, then it’s no surprise it’s taken me so long to come to terms with myself.
And counselling, the essential part of any trans persons ‘journey’? Well, at that first triage appointment with my doctor last May, I asked to be referred for counselling specific to my situation.
I’m longing for the first time I can go out clubbing, presenting unequivocally as female
Over a year on, I’m still waiting. Part of this is the inevitable delay that there is for any kind of therapy on the NHS, but in my case it’s also because I don’t wish to have therapy via a screen or on the phone.
How can I build up a relationship of trust with someone if I am unable to share the same physical space? There is no way I could reveal intimate details about my life unless I am in the same room or at least nearby.
When I explained this to one NHS provider last year, it degenerated into an argument in which they spouted jargon about ‘safeguarding’ and ‘procedures’. I suggested doing sessions in the open air. Nope.
At one stage, last September, when I was close to a breakdown and fearing that I would have to check myself into a hospital – I begged them, pleading not to make me a secondary victim of Covid-19. By this I mean that limiting my access because of coronavirus, could have had catastrophic implications. I was close to losing my mind.
But, they wouldn’t budge.
In the end I went private. I found one practitioner on the other side of the city who was willing to see me face to face. It helped massively. There is no way I could have opened up in the way I needed to with someone over the phone or screen.
That, along with my dear friends (and the antidepressants), has saved my sanity. Lockdown may be lifting now but there’s still no indication that the support groups I originally contacted are any closer to meeting up in real life.
I’ve survived. But I wonder how many others have been dealing with similar situations. Coming out is about becoming a more honest, authentic person. But during Covid-19, that drive towards authenticity has been thwarted; you’re still dealing with barriers, communicating behind screens, restricted, invisible.
And for trans people, visibility is so important. I’m longing for the first time I can go out clubbing, presenting unequivocally as female (I’ve already got my outfit sorted!)
Without visibility, without a real world social life we are stuck inside without witnesses to our transformation, in a state of limbo. How can you be out without, er, going out?
Answer: you can’t. Not yet, anyway.
Do you have a story you’d like to share? Get in touch by emailing James.Besanvalle@metro.co.uk.
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