Courage

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“I feel like I am an eternal pre-teenager” Alvar tells me. He is referring to his beard, or the lack of having one, and the way that his voice glides up towards a higher pitch with a lot more ease than it does landing in a lower one. Still, compared to just a few months ago, he is much closer now to becoming the man that he is.

Since the last post that we published here, many things have happened. Every step needs its own post, so this is a helicopter view of the landscape that we have crossed during the months that have taken us from winter to late summer. In February, Alvar got his referral to the gender clinic. In June, he had his first appointment with the gender specialist. In July, he had the second one, which has propelled him into several more meetings with the doctor, taking blood tests and having general check-ups to see if, and how, his body will be able to cope with hormone treatment.

When I asked Alvar what has taken him most by surprise, he says that it is the speed with which things have progressed since his first appointment with the doctor who wrote the referral for him. According to the gender specialist, Alvar’s body does not have any complications that would stand in the way of him beginning with HRT at the end of this year. Before this, the plan is for him to start having injections which will stop his periods from coming, something which will hopefully make his everyday life easier. At the gender clinic, the specialist has been focused on building things gradually. The first appointment that Alvar had, was entirely dedicated to creating a profile of him: his childhood, his family relations, his social and economic situation. I remember him coming out of the room looking slightly disappointed, although trying to keep his mood up by saying that this was only the beginning. During the next appointment, Alvar and the specialist went deeper into his own perception of himself, his gender identity, and what changes he would like to do in order to feel at home in his body. My guess is that the fact that Alvar has been very clear with what he is looking for, is the main reason for this process having been relatively free from friction. I know that this is far from the case for everybody, and I am grateful that so far, Alvar has not had to fight his way through any medical barriers in order to proceed with his physical transition. Earlier today, Alvar joked about the fact that he has had more problems with the public health system when trying to get his wisdom teeth removed, than he has had in taking steps towards his gender reassignment. It is astounding that things have moved so quickly for him, considering the shortage of gender specialists in the region; Alvar’s doctor works twelve hours a day, dividing his time between clinics in several different cities.

Apart from the medical advancements that Alvar has made, he has also become more open about his identity as a transman during these past months. In March, on the International Transgender Day of Visibility, Alvar announced his gender identity publicly in social media. A few weeks ago, he took another big step, by sending an email to his manager at work, explaining that he is in the process of transitioning into a man. This was after having a particularly difficult week at his job, where he kept being put to do tasks that nobody else wanted to do, even though these are things that are not part of his job responsibilities. On top of this, he felt that he was being regarded with suspicion, and questioned in a way that none of his colleagues were. I think that this is something that many LGBTI+ people have experienced – this subtle, unspoken air of isolation, which is too elusive to be pointed out as direct discrimination and which, more than anything, makes one doubt oneself.

In the beginning of the week that Alvar and I sat in front of the computer devising the email to his manager, the head office at his work had made a new policy official, stating that employees must take a whole day off as annual leave if they have a doctor’s appointment that they need to go to. Before the policy was announced, Alvar had been able to swap lunch breaks with colleagues, or work an extra hour or two whenever he had a doctor’s appointment. Concerned that he might have to start using his holidays in order to do the short blood tests and reviews that he is booked in for, Alvar decided to write directly to his manager to explain that his transition will require him to make regular doctors’ appointments, some of which will need to be within his working hours. He also pointed out that the company has a firm inclusion policy in place, and that he therefor trusts that he has his manager’s support in the transition.

I asked Alvar what has been the most difficult so far, during the transitioning process. He did not have to think long: “Abandoning my comfortable position. Changing the way that people look at me, and no longer being able to just go along with the view that people have of who I am.” Then he looked me in the eye and said that another difficult thing is to live with the fear of losing me, and of losing other people that are close to him. I know what he means – changing ones pronouns is an abstract thing to do, compared to having most of one’s physical features altered. The other day we got a lift from a lady who saw us walking on a country road (one of our weekend adventures). She said: “If you had been two men, I wouldn’t have bothered picking you up, but I thought to myself that these ladies look tired so I’ll give them a ride” Buckling our seat belts, Alvar and I met each other’s eyes and took care not to laugh. If irony were a person, it would have been sitting between us, stretching its arms around our shoulders.

The other morning, Alvar rolled the question over to me, asking what I think of all that has happened, and of what will happen in the future. I couldn’t answer him right away. What I am thinking now, is that courage builds courage. Alvar is brave, in the way that he lives his life, and in the way that he shows love. Still, I know that he worries sometimes. “The world isn’t ready” he says. “I know that this is a lonely path, changing like this. I am afraid of going into public bathrooms, or into changing rooms, I’m afraid of how people are going to react once I start growing a beard, while still having the chest of a woman.”

I get upset when I hear that there is still a debate about whether or not the process of gender affirmation should be covered by public healthcare. The discourse around gender reassignment in these cases is that it is a ‘first world problem’ (an expression which is problematic in itself), even though gender variation beyond the binary female-and-male can be dated back to the beginning of human time. Sometimes I have the feeling that being gender non-conforming is regarded as a bit of a curiosity, with an exotic tint to it, rather than a harsh everyday reality for people like Alvar, who have to be prepared to break just about everything in their life in order to be who they are.

Experiencing gender dysphoria has nothing to do with choice. Gender affirmation is not something one treats oneself to, like a foam bath or a trip to the cinema, or even a career path. I think of Alvar as someone who was always meant to have his voice drop, his facial hair grow, the lines of his jaw and shoulders more become remarked. It took longer time for him, that’s all. And in the meantime, he has done what all of us should do more: he has been practising courage.

© Picture: ‘Fire in the Rain’ by Alvar.

Tomboy or Trans

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For Valentine’s Day, Alvar got me a small model of a unicorn. It’s sitting on the windowsill now, keeping me company when I eat breakfast in the mornings, several hours after Alvar has left for work. For me, this journey with Alvar started with the Gender Unicorn, a beautiful illustration by Landyn Pan and Anna Moore, showing how diverse we humans are in terms of sexuality, emotion, gender identity, and gender expression. After having been given the picture as study material for the volunteer work that I was doing, I showed Alvar the unicorn one evening. A week later, he told me that he might be trans, and that this was a truth that he had tried to suppress most of his life.

Once we had begun to discuss Alvar’s identity, a whole universe of questions opened up. Initially, Alvar was not sure if he wanted to transition at all. He said that he had learned to love his body the way that it was, and that he had ‘gotten by’ so far. He asked me how our life was going to look, and if we even had a future together, if he decided to become more male. I didn’t have any answers to those questions. All I knew, was what I had learned through my own coming-out process: the only way that one can build real relationships is by being true to oneself. Regardless of what happens between Alvar and me, I would never want him to compromise with who he is for my sake.

The questions that we tried to find information on, were the usual ones that people who think about transitioning need to consider: What kind of changes could Alvar make? What would be covered by national health care? What were the criteria for being referred to a gender clinic? How might hormone replacement therapy affect Alvar, what risks were involved? Alvar started the process of getting closer to the idea of transitioning by looking up others who spoke about their own way to gender affirmation. He found a few people on YouTube who shared their experiences of going through the process of transitioning. For my own part, I searched medical websites for information about waiting lists, and the different stages that a transition takes one through. In between reading articles and making notes, I had days when I was too upset to even touch the subject. Alvar’s videos of trans men made me leave the room – I didn’t want to think about him going through the same changes that they had done, exchanging their boyish androgynity for becoming men. I wish I could say that those days of being troubled are over, but I still experience them. To me, Alvar is perfect the way he is now. The contrasts between his masculinity and femininity is what caught my attention when we first met. They still fascinate me, and the thought of him losing these nuances terrifies me. At the same time, every day I learn more about what this discordance between his outer appearance and the way that he feels on the inside, costs. Also, part of me is longing to see the ‘real’ him, the way that he perceives himself. I want to meet him when he feels whole. On the days that I don’t let my fear take over, I know that he will be even more beautiful once he has made the changes to his appearance that he wants to do. It’s a dive-and-climb journey, this being the partner of someone who is transitioning. On the one hand, I get to accompany Alvar to each height that he reaches, witnessing how he is becoming more comfortable with himself with every triumph. At the same time, I find myself free-falling out into the atmosphere, not sure where I will land, or what to expect when I get there.

“She had the swagger of a girl. She blushed like a boy. She had a girl’s toughness. She had a boy’s gentleness. She was as meaty as a girl. She was as graceful as a boy. She was as brave and handsome and rough as a girl. She was as pretty and delicate and dainty as a boy. She turned boys’ heads like a girl. She turned girls’ heads like a boy. She made love like a boy. She made love like a girl. She was so boyish it was girlish, she was so boyish it was girlish” 

Girls Meets Boy by Ali Smith (Canongate, 2007)

When I first told my friends about Alvar’s gender identity, they asked me if he is sure that he is a man, or if he might just be gender nonconforming, in the way that he doesn’t fit society’s narrow criteria for what a woman should be like. For a brief moment, I asked myself that question too, but even before Alvar came out to me, I had a feeling that he was a man, limited by the fact that he has a woman’s body. There is an ongoing discussion in the L(GBTI+) community about how there is no space for butch lesbians anymore. Being assigned female at birth, and at the same time being perceived as incredibly masculine in appearance and interests, is often considered to be provocative, not only in the heteronormative society as a whole, but also within lesbian circles. The term ‘butch’ in itself is not easily defined; even the most masculine lesbians that I know, do not use the word ‘butch’ to describe themselves – ‘tomboy’ is much more often used. Perhaps the word tomboy has a more playful, rather than aggressive connotation. Maybe tomboy suggests a mixture of both male and female, whereas butch has a much more pronounced masculine feel to it. As one of the interviewees in the documentary Gender Troubles: The Butches by Lisa Plourde, says, butch women are often mistaken as trans men, and suffer abuse from people who regard them as ‘trying’ to be men.

I asked Alvar where he thinks the line goes, and why he changed from seeing himself as a boyish, lesbian/bisexual woman to, well, a straight man. “Growing up, you might realise that you like girls. Or, you might realise that you like boys. Or neither, or both”, he said. “The question is: how do you perceive yourself? Are you happy with the body that you have, or are you looking at the others, thinking that you should have been born with the same kind of bodies that they have?” To me, that is a clear explanation between the difference of tomboys and trans men, i.e. the difference between gender expression and gender identity. There are days when Alvar avoids mirrors. I only know this because he has told me – from the outside, he comes across as comfortable with himself. The tomboy women that I know, feel at one with their bodies – it is society’s disapproval that they have to deal with, rather than an inwards fight with themselves as they are.

The story of finding oneself is different for everybody. In Alvar’s case, he has never done any self harm, something that is often mentioned when talking about people who experience gender dysphoria. The reason why Alvar did not approach the subject of being trans before now, he tells me, is because he didn’t know anything about what transitioning meant, and he didn’t recognise his own experiences in the ones the few stories about transgender people that he knew. He admits that he had a lot of prejudice against people who wanted to change the gender they were assigned at birth. Although Alvar didn’t see himself as trans, he tells me that he never felt at home in the lesbian community either. From the interviews that I have heard with people who have transitioned to men, there seems to be a chasm between lesbian women and trans men. I don’t know if some lesbians feel resentment towards trans men, seeing them as sisters who have abandoned the cause of feminism for living a life with male privilege. It’s something that Alvar has reflected on, this changing to ‘the other side’, where he might be perceived as part of the patriarchal problem, rather than an ally. At the same time, his experiences of meeting gay women have often involved rivalry, and a feeling that he has been regarded as a threat, being as masculine as he is. To illustrate: some people have been surprised to hear that he hasn’t started HRT yet, they have been convinced that he must be taking testosterone because of way he looks. In some cases, the same competition that he experienced among lesbian women, seems to have been transferred to how he is received by other trans men. Alvar and I have discussed if this sense of jealousy is related to the way the girls are brought up to see each other as threats, rather than supporting each other.  I have to admit that the last time I was in a room with several trans men, I felt a certain amount of suspicion from some of them. Maybe it was only me projecting the worry that they would think that I judged them for the life change that they had made. Or maybe it was a sense of feeling out of place as someone who is gay, but cis gendered, and who, as a result of that, has the security of belonging to the lesbian community where bonding with each other is the key.

Before I came out as a lesbian, I read many coming-out stories, searching for one that would match how I felt. However, most of the stories that I found, were ones told by ‘tomboys’, who had known that they were gay from a very early age. They also stressed the fact that they spent their childhoods doing sports and playing with cars instead of having makeovers and dressing dolls. Essentially, in terms of gender expression, the narrative for lesbian women was similar to that of many trans men. For my own part, I couldn’t relate to these stories. Growing up, I had never fallen in love with my friends that were girls, nor was I interested in football or vehicles (except, perhaps, hot air balloons…) – I had the same kind of dreams of pink and ponies that a lot of girls around me had. Even during my rebel teens, questioning beauty ideals and patriarchy,  I never felt that I walked outside the frames of societal structures enough to be gay. I think that this is the reason why it took me so long to find where I stood, sexually and emotionally. I just knew that I connected with women much more than I did with men, and that women made my head turn a lot more often than I found myself looking at a man.

Conflating gender identity, gender expression, and sexuality, is a common thing to do. For some people, these three things are united, without any friction in between. In general, though, I think that most people experience a kind of disharmony at one point or other during their lives. I also believe that these things can change over time – for instance, I felt that I grew a lot more convinced of my lesbian disposition over the years, compared to how I was when I first came out as bisexual. In a world that wasn’t so fixed on binaries, that had more space for fluidity, maybe people wouldn’t feel the need to change go through the process of transition. Maybe more women would identify as butch, rather than trans. Right now, I don’t think there is any point in speculating in that. A society that is more open and all-embracing would be wonderful, but to question the real distress of people who don’t feel at home in their own bodies, is nothing but ignorant. I wish that anyone who has felt the same kind of anguish over their bodies that Alvar has, gets the opportunity to make the changes necessary in order to meet their own selves and think: “That’s me. That’s who I am”.

© Picture: ‘The Lonely Mitt’ by Alvar.

Identity: ‘Trans’ man

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Every month one of the LGBTI+ organisations in our town hosts a meeting group for trans and non binary people, and their friends and families. A few weeks ago, Alvar and I went to one of the meetings together. Having lunch at a pub before, Alvar told me that he was so nervous that he thought that he might be sick. It was the first time that he had ever presented himself as trans to other people. I was worried that he might be put off from wanting to take his transition any further, if the meeting turned out to be a negative experience for him. In all honesty, I was afraid that we would meet the kind of brokenness and despair that media often associates with trans people, and that Alvar would think that his future would turn out to be the same if he started transitioning physically.

Before going into the building, Alvar and I both took deep breaths. We hadn’t told anyone that we were coming, but the organisers welcomed us at the door, and showed us around, making sure that we got something to drink and a place to sit. The hallway was full of information about all things LGBTI+; some of the brochures that were specifically for trans and non binary people had practical information about health care, and support for trans employees, as well as social events and trans friendly sports clubs.

One of the main rooms had several sofas, where people of all kinds of gender identities were sitting and drinking coffee and talking. Some were in deep discussion about the phases they were going through in their transition, while others seemed to be happy just to relax in an open and non-judgemental environment, talking about life in general. It was clear that some of visitors had known each other for a long time; however, just like us, there were a few that were new to the group. From what I could tell, I was the only one who had come along as a supporter; apart from Alvar, everyone else seemed to have come to the meeting group alone. We all have our own stories, but I got the sense that for some people, this is the only support network there is, when friends and family are not able, or willing, to accept their true identities. I still felt that the energy in the room was mainly positive; even though there were serious matters discussed, the core thing was the quality of affirmation, of meeting each others’ eyes and acknowledging each others’ presence.

Once Alvar and I had talked to one of the volunteers for a while, people came and sat down next to us, introducing themselves. One of the things that made the biggest impression on me was the non-obtrusive way that people approached us, I had the feeling that nothing was taken for granted about who we were, that people were waiting to speak to us before putting us into a category. To me, that made the communication more open. There was room for being creative with oneself, even for re-defining; I was pleased to be asked the question how I identify myself.

I have asked Alvar how he felt about the meeting, if he felt different after having been there. The first thing that he pointed out was the enthusiasm and warmth of the organisers, how he felt that they were truly dedicated to helping people, and that they were open to any ideas on activities or discussions that would be valuable for people attending the meetings. At the session that we went to, there was a workshop with a person who works with concealing scars. She gave advice on how to cover scars, whether they were from injuries, or operations, and also what kind of support there was for people who had traumas connected to their scars, and ways of healing.

Alvar said that it was good to see so many trans people in the town that we live, as he has mostly been watching YouTube videos of trans and non-binary people, and that sometimes made it feel like transitioning is only something that happens to people ‘on-screen’ rather than in everyday life. When I asked Alvar if he felt that he could see himself in any of the people who were at the meeting, he shook his head, and answered that even though they had experiences in common, they, just like any group of individuals, all had very different personalities. While he enjoyed listening to what the others had to say, he did get the feeling that some people were watching him  with a kind of reservedness. He says that this happens to him sometimes, and he thinks that it has to do with his masculinity, both in his appearance and in his way of being. ‘Direct’ is the word that he uses to describe himself. Knowing him, he does give off a sense of security and self confidence that I think some people might find a bit intimidating. However, I would say that this directness is balanced by the genuine want to connect, and to find a common ground with whomever he speaks with, even if that means throwing himself into conversations about matters that he knows nothing about. One of the things that he fears, he says, is that he won’t be welcomed into the trans community once he starts with hormone therapy, as chances are that his already masculine features will be accentuated so much that he will ‘pass’ as a man. People might think that he is so well-immersed in the community of cis men, that he doesn’t need the support of other trans people.

Something that we both took with us from the meeting was the acknowledgement of Alvar’s identity as trans. He says that not only did he become more certain that he wanted to transition, but that he also felt pride in having the identity ‘trans man’ rather than simply a ‘man’. His experience of having lived as a woman is something that will always be a part of him, and rather than wanting to blank it out, he says that he prefers to embrace it, and to draw knowledge from it. “I will always be in the middle”, he told me.”Even after I have transitioned, and even if other people only see me as a man, I will always be part of the LGBTQIA+ world.”

I love him for that.

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© ‘The Symbol’ by Alvar

The ‘Hers&His’ Issue

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I have only just recently started using male pronouns when I refer to Alvar. As he is not ‘out’ as a man to the majority of the people that we know, I only speak of him as ‘he’ when I am talking to a few of our closest friends. I admit that I feel ambiguous about this. Things that used to make me smile, like when someone affectionately calls us ‘you girls’, or hearing Alvar being referred to as my ‘girlfriend’ (a term I used to use with pride), now make me feel uneasy.

Yesterday I told Alvar that I wasn’t sure about what to do once he starts using male pronouns only; the simple act of saying ‘she’ about my partner has become a way for me to navigate through the world. People treat you very differently, depending on if they consider you straight or gay (unfortunately, most of the time, these seem to be the only two options that people are aware of when it comes to sexual orientation). When I used to date men, I found that straight women often bonded through talking about their boyfriends, or by remarking the differences in behaviour between men and women. I never felt comfortable in that kind of environment; firstly, because at that time, I identified as bisexual, and so this kind of ‘between us ladies, you know what men are like’-jargon didn’t feel applicable to me. Secondly, I  wanted to connect with people through other things that we had in common, regardless of which gender that person might be.

Being out as a lesbian, my experience is that people talk to me in a another way. If they ask about my girlfriends, it is more with curiousity, rather than making assumptions about my relationships. There also seems to be some kind of unspoken understanding that I might be living my life differently than straight people, just because my partner has the same gender as I do.

Bearing the politics of pronouns in mind, Alvar suggested that I use the gender neutral ‘they’ when I talk to new people about him. That way, we can still make visible the fact that our relationship is not a standard heterosexual one. We joked about calling him my ‘transband’ rather than ‘husband’ once we get married, but I suspect that people might misunderstand me completely, thinking that I am referring to a Transatlantic music band rather than the person that I am married to.

Maintaining a queer identity is something that I am a lot more concerned about than Alvar is. His androgynous appearance and way of being has enabled him to be part of communities of both women and men, while my sense of belonging has been strongly within the lesbian feminist realm. While this is something that has offered me a lot of comfort, I am also aware that it limits me. The term ‘sisterhood’ has a sharp tang of exclusion in it, and I don’t want to be building walls – society is harsh enough towards people whom it considers to be outside its norms, for us to start creating even more division amongst ourselves.

While I battle with my own linguistic definitions, I worry about how people in general will react to Alvar when he starts telling people to use his true pronouns. Before he begins with HRT, there is a risk that people will question his gender identity. We have been very lucky so far – the people that Alvar as come out to, have all been supportive and encouraging.

I think that the ‘Ask me about my pronouns’ jewellery is brilliant. Any person, with any gender identity, can wear them to highlight the fact that if you want to speak about someone, about who they really are, you have to ask them about their true identity first. I would definitely wear a necklace like that. I’m sure it would lead to some interesting conversations.

 

 

 

© ‘He&She’ by Alvar