An Idiot’s Guide to Changing Gender

If you’ve decided it’s finally time to stop struggling to squeeze yourself each morning into the wrongly shaped social and sartorial space; if you’ve plucked up the courage at last to take your inner man or woman out into the world to find out what sort friends he or she can make; if, once and for all, you’ve chosen to stop pretending and become the boy or girl you knew you were always meant to be; if all you’re lacking in order to achieve all of these things is a smidgeon of empathetic encouragement, then you’ve come to the right place!  Here, then, is my simple, step-by-step guide to coming out of the transgender closet.  Armed with this exclusive manual (along with thirty-odd years of vacillation, a stultifying set of middle-class sensibilities, and a tendency to over-intellectualise what should really be a decision of the heart), your transformation from Barry to Barbara – or from Germaine to Jeremy – is only an effortless twenty-three-and-a-half steps away…


Step One     Realise at quite a young age (probably at around six or seven) that girls seem to have nicer clothes, shoes and hairstyles than you do.  Begin to notice the way girls are generally granted greater freedom to express tenderness, gentleness and sensitivity than boys are (this is the 1980s, after all), and start to wonder what you have to do in order for authority figures like teachers and parents not to chastise you for expressing emotions like that.  As your childhood passes, you may also ponder why it is that being rubbish at competitive sport carries such punitive social sanction, and compensate for an unstated (but somehow taken-for-granted) prohibition on owning a Barbie by starting a comprehensive collection of Star Wars figures.

Step Two     Acknowledge the nascent stirrings of wanting to be someone else by occasionally trying on items from your mother’s wardrobe.  It is best to wait until you are alone in the house to do this, and to become so adroit at replacing things exactly as you found them that, even decades later, your mother is genuinely surprised when you tell her that’s what you used to do.  Realise that you dream about being a girl, but believe that this happened far less frequently than it actually did.

Step Three     If you cannot contrive permissible reasons for dropping into drag (such as attending a fancy-dress party or playing a practical joke), you will often find yourself all dressed up with nowhere to go.  As you enter your teens, therefore, be sure to sexualise women’s clothes.  Channel all your desires to wear delicate fabrics, flowing dresses, tight skirts, lacy underwear, make-up and stilettoes into onanistic activities that serve as a form of emotional release and self-justification.  The desires you are feeling will make no sense at all unless you pigeonhole them – erroneously – as the consequence of a disturbed libido.

Step Four     At this delicate stage of your emotional development, of course, you will be tap-dancing through a Freudian minefield if you haven’t graduated from borrowing your mother’s clothes to making some purchases of lady-garments of your own.  Using what you earn from a Saturday job selling fruit and vegetables on a market stall in the centre of your hometown (and taking advantage of the late-eighties’ boom in stores selling clothes at what amounts to pocket-money prices), buy yourself a basic little black dress, a pleated mini-skirt, a faux-angora sweater, a pair of pink trainers, a set of ladies’ underwear, a double-pack of white polyester work blouses, some kitten-heels, and a brace of cheap cosmetics.  Hide these so carefully that not even a team of trained forensic archaeologists could find them, and put them on (but never all at once) whenever the opportunity presents itself (i.e. when you have the house to yourself, which, one joyous and fateful summer, turns out to be for an entire fortnight).

A poorly cobbled together mock-up of a guide to gender transition, based on a popular series of self-help books; included here only for illustrative purposes and not available in any shops

Step Five     Be a mawkish and socially awkward teenager.  Want – but completely fail to find – a girlfriend, and avoid dressy communal gatherings like parties and your school prom.  Pretend that this aversion to collective merrymaking is a result of your natural shyness and a preference for your own company, but know secretly that it’s really because you can’t stand to be around people in elegant gowns and beautiful frocks (clothes, in other words, that you really want to be wearing yourself as someone holds the door of a limousine open for you, and takes your arm and leads you through the double-doors of the ballroom, and takes your coat and buys you a drink as your peers stare at you with a mixture of adoration and envy).

Step Six     Have no sense of male fashion at all.  Treat clothes-shopping as a chore; take a utilitarian view of every garment you acquire, and purchase them with a careless briskness that almost (but not quite) prevents you from thinking about the clothes you really want; wear each pair of shoes you buy to the point of destruction; and, even as a sixteen year-old, dress like Bob Hope about to play a round of golf.

Step Seven     Surprise everyone (including yourself) by enjoying a fairly successful university career.  Make a handful of good and lasting friendships.  Act, stage revues, and perform stand-up comedy.  Run the university newspaper and be elected to the students’ union.  Discover a talent for academia and graduate at the top of your class.  Be astonished to realise that there are enough people who fancy you to make it worthwhile investing in a small wardrobe of fashionable men’s clothes.  Lose your virginity and get engaged.  Above all, bury your anxieties about gender as deep as they will go.  Convince yourself that you are a transvestite and contrive the occasional excuse to drag up in public (you are on the stage, after all); wear women’s clothes often in the privacy of your room and grow your hair, but never explicitly confess to anyone that the longing you feel isn’t really about being shocking or trying to be different.  In short, learn to play a character – a charming, erudite, witty, intelligent, popular character, but a character nonetheless.  Don’t let anyone ever see you cry about it, and, if they do, pretend you’re crying about something else.  (Vulnerable will turn out to be another quality you learn to let other people find irresistible about you…)

Step Eight     Leave your university sweetheart for a woman you meet doing amateur dramatics during a brief period living back with your parents the year you graduate.  This woman is a little bit older than you, and manages a branch of a fairly well-known high-street bank.  She is independent, solvent, and seems so grown up compared to the callow undergraduates you’re used to, that, when she invites you to move in with her, you say yes in a heartbeat.  Because this woman seems so worldly – and because she does amateur dramatics (where everyone is larger-than-life and welcomes those of all sexual persuasions and peccadilloes) – tell her that you like to wear women’s clothing.  (Don’t tell her straight away, of course.  First, spend two months crying yourself to sleep and jealously eyeing the pencil skirts and heels she wears for work.  Finally, at the end of the summer holidays, let her come home from the bank to find you curled foetal on your bed wearing the purple velvet dress she had bought for herself last weekend.)

Step Nine     Move back in with your parents.

Step Ten     After spending over a decade waiting to tell someone you love that you want to wear their clothes, learn the hard way that most women simply don’t fancy men when they look like women, and that most women want to look sexy for their man – not dress-down to stop him turning green with envy.  Naïve though it seems in retrospect, you will probably have spent the blackest periods of your youth consoling yourself that – when you are an adult and surrounded by loved-ones – you will be able to dress how you want and no-one will bat an eyelid.  You will have embraced this belief with a conviction akin to a religious principle; assuming you will mature in an environment that encourages you to be the person you want to be; knowing with the same certainty as you know the sun will rise tomorrow that you will be accepted for who you are.  To discover now that this beautiful dream of a transgender utopia was a self-deluding myth all along will be very heard to bear.

Step Eleven     In light of your misplaced trust in the fundamental magnanimity of the world, clumsily tell your parents the real reason why your relationship with the grown-up bank manager from Llandudno didn’t work out.  Don’t tell them straight away, of course: let them draw the truth out of you slowly and painfully, like a rusty blade from a wound.  Be so shell-shocked when they react to your news as if you’ve just sprayed them with a pungent gut-full of hot sick, that you agree never to speak of it with them again.  In a bewildered daze of betrayal, accede to their request to keep your sartorial tendencies a secret from the rest of the family.  Limp on in a state of numb emotional shock for a month or two, but then apply for – and get – a teaching post in a private school in a village about eight miles west of Nairobi.

Do not expect everyone you confront with the difficult news of your gender confusion to react with the understanding and empathy you are hoping for; indeed, many people will put their own feelings ahead of yours, even though the difficult news is primarily yours to deal with, not theirs

Step Twelve     Provided you can cope with periods of debilitating depression, the twin strategies of periodically running away to another country and ensuring you are constantly extremely busy (with, for example, amateur dramatics and part-time postgraduate study), should enable you to keep your sense of unfilled transgender longing more-or-less at bay for several years.  Bear in mind, however, that these distractions are precisely that – distractions – and the true source of your nagging dissatisfaction with the world (i.e. your wish to have been born someone else) will always catch up with you in the end.

Step Thirteen     As if to exact a kind of twisted revenge on the bank manager from Llandudno (who, you can’t help but feel, abandoned you when you were at your lowest ebb), treat all women appallingly.  Moreover, adopt relationships with wholly inappropriate women as projects: make getting them to fall in love with you – only to drop them without warning like a steaming bag of used nappies – a source of personal amusement and gratification.  (If you can find any, women with religious beliefs totally incompatible with your own agnosticism work best for this.)  Occasionally tell one of these women a version of the truth about yourself, but only when you will not be hurt by their sudden refusal to see you or answer your calls.

Step Fourteen     Give psychotherapy a go, but have very low expectations of the outcome: psychotherapists are a poor substitute for good friends.  Spend a brief period taking anti-depressant medication.  This medication works by knocking the extremes off your emotional repertoire.  Think of it as like peering out at the world through a letter-box: you can still see the middle-part of everything, but can no longer see what’s going on at the peripheries.  Emotionally, you will function in a sort of anaesthesia.  You won’t enjoy any extremes of joy, excitement or enthusiasm, but you won’t experience any lows of disappointment, heart-break or boredom, either.

Step Fifteen     Stop taking anti-depressant drugs when you realise you can no longer string complex sentences together.  Your verbal wit and erudition, remember, are important components of your ego and self-image, and without the gift of the gab, you fear becoming a shadow of your former self.  Decide that occasionally collapsing in tears on the bathroom floor is a reasonable trade for the potential to get really giddy and carried away sometimes.

Yellow Submarine
Whilst struggling with gender identity issues, it is not uncommon for the patient to experience psychotic episodes, for which a doctor may prescribe anti-depressant medication designed to stabilise their moods

Step Sixteen     Following another decade of alternately fleeing across continents and distracting yourself with ludicrously ambitious projects (such as an unsuccessful marriage), finally meet someone who does not run screaming for the hills when you tell them you hate your own body and the social space it occupies.  Allow this person to nurture the female part of your personality, and to teach you the rudiments of what clothes suit you and which don’t.  Although it may seem incredible, trust this person to find you as attractive as they say they do, and, when they pick you up off the bathroom floor for the fifth Sunday in a row, to guide you as you make a plan to start living full-time in your preferred gender role.

Step Seventeen     Now that you can finally start wearing the clothes you’ve always wanted to, discover a heretofore unrealised capacity for taking pride in your own appearance.  Watch what you eat and start to lose weight.  Be disciplined in your ability to stick to a schedule of exercise.  Enrol for pilates classes to improve your posture, and practise walking in heels without appearing like a new-born foal.  Have a skin-care regime, and invest in professional hair-removal.  For the first time in your life, dare to enjoy shopping for clothes.  Never forget, however, that you have not become someone’s project – they are helping you like this because they genuinely fancy you in women’s clothes; whatever you do, never, never take their tutelage so much for granted that there is no room in the relationship for anyone other than you.

Step Eighteen     Ask your GP to refer you to the Gender Identity Clinic in Hammersmith.  For most people, funding their own gender-reassignment surgery is prohibitively expensive.  If you think you may eventually seek surgery but are unlikely to inherit a fortune from a rich, hitherto unknown uncle in Argentina – nor unless you are planning a hugely successful diamond heist – Hammersmith hospital is the only route available to you in the UK that you won’t have to pay for yourself.  The waiting list for an appointment at the clinic is eye-wateringly long, however (somewhere in the region of twelve months for the first appointment, with anything up to two years before your first psychiatric assessment), so if you are sure of the road you are about to embark upon, do yourself a favour and go private as well.

Step Nineteen     To jump through the necessary hoops to obtain a prescription for feminising hormones, submit to the scrutiny of another psychotherapist.  Be sure to give the appearance of suffering because of your gender dysphoria, but don’t over-do it: you need to strike a balance between seeming to have the potential to lapse into depressive episodes, and otherwise being emotionally stoic enough to overcome societal opposition to your preferred gender role.  If you come across as too fragile (or, indeed, as a candidate for taking a machine gun into a multiplex cinema), you will be diagnosed as depressive rather than gender dysphoric, and treated for that instead.

Step Twenty     Plan to tell the people around you – and who will be affected by your decision – of your transition from Matthew to Abigail (to pick two names completely at random) in simple stages.  To achieve this, it may be helpful to compartmentalise the different areas of your social and professional life.  This will enable you to plan the most appropriate way to manage the process of ‘coming out’ with each group.  Think of this as a series of mentoring sessions: perverse as it may sound, the people you tell of your desire to transition will require your help to adjust to the new you.  Be prepared to encounter a broad spectrum of reactions, from absolute indifference to out-and-out hostility, via a hearty helping of discomfort and embarrassment, and baffling rejection.  Indifference is best (these are your true friends), but if anyone puts their hand on your shoulder and says, “I just want you to know, I don’t have a problem with it,” punch them in the face, for they are hypocrites.

“Luke: I just want you to know, I don’t have a problem with you being trans-Jedi. What you choose to do in the privacy of your own home is nobody else’s business.”

Step Twenty-One     Far be it from me to tell you which metaphor to choose when describing your gender transition, but unless you are absolutely convinced that you are setting free the woman (or man) who has always lived inside you, think of your transformation as a process of carving out a social space for yourself that is more congruent with your self-image.  Accordingly, there is a great deal you can do in order to help the people around you see you – and treat you – more like the woman (or man) you want to be.  Wear clothes that suit you; either via diet and exercise, complex undergarments, minor surgery, or a combination of all three, work hard to maintain the physical shape you want; learn to walk and sit like a woman (or a man); and spend some time with a voice coach.  By doing these things, you are not being vain or self-indulgent: rather, you are negotiating how the world sees you, and the easier you make it for people to perceive you as female (or male), the more readily you will be accepted and normalised into your new gender role.

Step Twenty-One-and-a-Half     Beware, however, of falling into the trap called ‘spend more money to become a better transvestite’, for it can lead to personal bankruptcy.  Having spent years closeted away, the temptation to have an almighty splurge on clothes and shoes and cosmetics and surgery and hairdressing and depilation and deportment classes can be very strong, but there is an entire parasitic industry devoted to helping men become more convincing women (and vice versa) that has no compunction whatsoever about separating insecure transsexuals from their dwindling supplies of cash.  Budget accordingly.  You will inevitably spend more than you did on sartorial essentials in your previous gender role, but think about how much – per month – a genetic man or woman would ordinarily spend on their appearance, and try to stick to a limit.

Step Twenty-Two     Be nice to the gatekeepers of key waystations on your transgender journey.  No matter how patronised a doctor’s receptionist makes you feel; nor how spectacularly a psychotherapist may waste your time; nor how foolish an endocrinologist makes you appear; nor how blithely a plastic surgeon parts you from your money; nor how insignificantly you are treated by the bureaucrats of your national and local governments; bear in mind that these people hold your future happiness in their hands, and to upset them will achieve nothing other than to further delay the realisation of your ambitions.  Save your Foucauldian outrage for a more sympathetic audience: none of your encounters with clinicians and administrators will be meetings of equals.  Do not take it for granted that everyone believes that your body is your own to do with as you please.  Remember that you live in a country where you aren’t even allowed to decide for yourself when and where you can smoke a cigarette, so do not assume that you are considered capable of choosing for yourself what you put in, stick on, cut off, and turn inside out on your own body.  Lots of people will prophesy doom for any actions you wish to take.  They are paid to do this, and some actually believe it is their moral duty to tell you what you can and cannot do with the only thing in the world that can rightfully be said to belong to you – that is, the meat hanging off your bones.  When you are told which hoops you must jump through next in order to bring you a few steps closer to what you want, smile and nod, and promise to heed the instructions of the doctors, clinicians, pharmacists, surgeons, solicitors and therapists with the power to grant your wishes.

Michel Foucault, looking positively nonplussed at the news that everything he said about the hegemony inherent in patient-clinician relationships holds doubly true in the case of transsexuals

Step Twenty-Three     You may find yourself reflecting on the sacrifices you have had to make in order to seize the right to do what you want with your life.  From time-to-time, you may wonder what would have happened if you’d just kept your mouth shut: you probably wouldn’t have needed to exchange depression for unemployment, for instance; self-deceit for social isolation, and public acceptance for a good measure of unsolicited abuse.  Occasionally take time to wonder whether all the hassle is worth it, and always decide that it is.

One thought on “An Idiot’s Guide to Changing Gender

  1. Now who’s flattered! Your style of writing is so elegant. Excuse me while I pick my jaw up off the floor. Thanks so much for visiting my blog! I’ll definitely be following you in the future 🙂


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s