The Great Escape – How Family Rejection and Bereavement Can Set You Free

We like to imagine that we can compartmentalise the tricky process of coming-out as transgender.  By dividing our social and professional lives into convenient, neatly demarcated areas, we reason, we can manage the way we break the news of our transition – and the reactions of the people whom we tell – without overwhelming ourselves with change.  (We pretend that we are responsible for this compartmentalisation, but we’re not.  It’s just that our lives tend to be organised that way anyway.)  I started by telling my closest friends, and I was lucky in that most of them had already pretty much worked things out for themselves.  As my most sympathetic audience, breaking the news first to my friends permitted me to test the water of social acceptance in the least painful way possible.  (And if it had changed the way they felt about me for the worst, then they were never really my friends, were they?)  After that, I didn’t so much tell people what I was doing to transform my life, as confront them with the reality of it.  By simply presenting the new me to the world, I allowed the people I came into contact with to behave naturally – to reject, accept, or remain indifferent to, me as was their wont.  It proved an effective way to spring clean my social life, and to reduce the length of my Christmas card list.  I like to think I managed the whole process rather well, right up to the point of discussing my transition with my immediate family.  That’s when the imagination and resilience I had hitherto shown deserted me, and I fear, in particular, that I may have done irreparable damage to my relationship with my brother.

 

If my family had been more like the ones I’ve seen in American movies, when my father was diagnosed with a terminal illness in 2010, he would have summoned me to his study and offered me a cigar.  After lighting it for me from a flint mounted in a lump of granite from his desk, he would have taken a couple of puffs of his own cigar and collapsed into a nerve-jangling coughing-fit.  When that had subsided, he would have begun pacing to and fro in front of an oil painting of my great-great-great-great ancestor, and told me what a huge responsibility I would soon have to take on as the eldest heir to the Robinson dynasty.  At the end of his speech, he would have pressed the family signet-ring into the palm of my hand and embraced me warmly.  I would have known he was crying, but, when we straightened and parted, his expression would have betrayed nothing other than stoicism and quiet dignity.

But our family was not like one of those in an American movie.  Instead, as my father got more and more poorly, I watched him struggle to maintain a sense of control over his ever-shrinking world.  First, he stockpiled sets of screws and gradated sprocket-sets in order to be able to resume the odd-jobs he’d put off until he felt well enough again.  Then, the room in which he was increasingly confined had to be just so, with every creature comfort in its proper place.  Next, he required certain items arranging within easy reach around his bed, and he spent one heartbreaking afternoon painstakingly enlarging the diagram on the lid of a box of Family Choice biscuits, so he could locate the variety of biscuit he fancied with maximum efficiency.  After that…  Well, there was no after that.

I did my grieving when I learned of my father’s diagnosis: the actual end came as something of a relief.  In the months after his death, I have to confess to experiencing bereavement in the abstract.  That is: I missed my dad, but not in any concrete, practical sense.  We’d never spent a great deal of social time together; he never took me fishing or introduced me to his friends down the pub (not that he ever really did either); and, whenever I called home and my father answered, the conversation was always very brief, and proceeded very rapidly to him saying, “I’ll put your mother on.”  I was never going to miss spending time with him when he was gone, because I’d never really done so while he was alive: the only thing I was denied by his death was the symbolic presence of a father figure, not an old pal I adored hanging out with.

Looking back, it seems obvious that the distance between my father and I was due in large part to the unspoken knowledge we shared that I was not happy in my own skin.  A year or two after graduating from university, I had made a clumsy attempt to tell my parents that I liked wearing women’s clothes (which, at the time, was as much of the truth as I knew), but their response had not been the laissez-faire, live-and-let-live demonstration of unconditional support I had been hoping for.  They understood the irreconcilable biological cruelty of my predicament, they said, but would prefer never to speak of it again.  Furthermore, they implored, I must never let my brother gain any inkling of my transvestite leanings.

If I hadn’t been so shell-shocked by this rejection, there might have been a confrontation. Instead, I underwent an abrupt process of disconnection from home.  My parents’ embargo on any future discussion about my gender identity proved an extremely effective way of severing the apron strings, and I was suddenly free of the emotional anchor to home that, it turned out, had prevented me from setting off by myself on an intercontinental adventure.  For the next decade and a half thereafter, whenever I visited my family, I did so in role as the untroubled cisgender son or brother.  They never saw me dressed up, and we never talked about it.  My parents knew anecdotally that I was continuing to dress as I liked whenever I could, but, by refusing to discuss it, they could at least pretend it wasn’t happening, and convince themselves that they had no cause for social embarrassment.

Frame Gerry Springer
I used to be a man! – The healthiest families resolve their differences with a therapeutic slanging match; others (like mine) prefer to stew in years of toxic suspicion and resentment

When my father died in 2012, I think I was set free for a second time; exonerated, on this occasion, from my promise to keep my sartorial leanings a secret.  From my perspective, bereavement served as a release – the irrevocable termination of an unspoken contract that had taken an enormous emotional toll on one of its chief signatories.  Of course I was saddened by his death; of course I thought it tragic that my mother would be left without him; of course I found his terrified descent into invalidity harrowing; but, when he was gone, I gained far more than I lost, because I gained the ability to be myself all the time, without needing to put on a costume whenever I saw him.

Within a year after his death, I had come-out to my friends, changed the details on my passport and driver’s licence, and was laying the foundations necessary for me to be able to attend work full-time in female role: sitting down with my mother was one of last pieces of the compartmentalised jigsaw of coming-out still to be put into place.  It wasn’t easy; I put it off several times; and, ultimately, I needed someone to hold my hand while I did it.  Once she’d had time to process the information, my mother confessed to feeling guilty; berated herself for letting me down by not being more supportive when I had needed it most; and, inevitably, had questions (mostly about my childhood cross-dressing) that she seemed to think she should ask, based on the testimonials she’d read about transgender people in some of the doctor’s waiting-room type periodicals to which she subscribed.  Her primary concern, however, was to make two further requests of me – one which I don’t think I can fulfil; the other that I already haven’t.  First (and morbidly), she made me promise that, when it was time to stage her funeral, I would attend in the guise of the son she had given birth to rather than as the woman I had become.  Second, she asked if I would be the one to tell my brother of my transition.

I vacillated for almost sixth months over how and when to invite my brother into what was, by now, a very badly kept secret.  Eventually, however, whilst on holiday with him and his girlfriend, my mother told him for me.  It was the least she could have done, I suppose, and I was grateful she’d spared us a humiliating encounter that could well have ended in physical violence.

Using my mother as an intermediary, my brother’s first response was to ask if he could see some photographs of me, post-change.  I can only speculate over the reasons for this, but I suspect he was motivated by a desire to prepare for our meeting by finding out what sort of physical reality would confront him, so that, in turn, he could evaluate the extent to which I ‘passed’, and decide whether he had the stomach to see me in public.  My brother’s priority was to establish how mortified he would be if the two of us were seen together by someone he knew. Clearly, he was not about to follow in my transgender footsteps – there was to be no Wachowski moment for us.

(This reference can be appreciated most fully after a visit to…https://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/mar/09/matrix-director-lilly-wachowski-comes-out-as-a-transgender-woman.)

Was I willing to submit to being vetted by my brother before I saw him again?  Not in a million years.  This was in October, 2014, and I haven’t seen him face-to-face since.  I am left wondering, however, why it is that the bonding my brother and I did in the days preceding our father’s funeral has been so thoroughly undone by my refusal to conform to society’s arbitrary gender distinctions.  Why were my parents incapable even of discussing my dissatisfaction with the sartorial limitations placed upon me via a combination of chromosomes, and the lower-middleclass social mores under which I grew up?  Why can’t my brother see over his kneejerk prejudice and anxieties regarding what other people might think, in the interests of preserving the unity of our ever-shrinking family unit?

I imagine that some people find the very notion of interaction with transsexuals embarrassing in a way which they are helpless to control – on a level that is subconscious to the point of being visceral – and I think my brother is one of them.  This embarrassment is the consequence of the preconceptions people form about transgender people as a result of their exposure to two unfortunate transgender stereotypes.  It doesn’t help the well-adjusted majority if the transsexuals who dominate the media (and, therefore, popular consciousness) are grotesque pantomime dames with paunches and terrible posture, stooping awkwardly in their twinsets and pearls; adenoidal attention-seekers in crop-tops and bad wigs, clogging up the sofas of daytime talk-shows; or preening quasi-pornstars padded with silicone and collagen, and posing for selfies every five minutes.  To many people, the line between being transgender and devoting oneself to the enactment of an all-consuming sexual fetish is a grey and flimsy one, and it is undeniably disconcerting to be in the company of someone you suspect is motivated solely by the desire to show off and be noticed.

Frame Pantomime Dame
Sometimes, the mental image of what a cherished family member might have become can be far more disturbing than coming face-to-face with the reality

The other reason my brother isn’t ready to renew the uneasy sibling relationship we once had is that he feels as if he has been lied to: everything he assumed he knew about me has been turned on its head, and it appears as if I have been keeping a very big secret from him for a very long time.  Thought of in this way, his sense of betrayal seems perfectly comprehensible, and he can be forgiven for feeling as if – when it comes to something as momentous as gender transition – I should have told him ages ago.  The fact that he has been presented with a fait accompli (rather than having the opportunity to grow into the idea gradually), must seem to him as something of an insult.  If I trusted and respected him – if, in other words, the fact that we were brothers meant anything to me – I would have involved him years ago, and confided in him at the point when I first suspected I wasn’t like other boys.  During my bleakest periods, I might even have sought his advice.  By not doing this, I denied him the opportunity of doing what a good brother should – of being there to support and protect a member of his family when they needed his help the most.

The paradox is that, from my perspective, the old me was the lie; but from my brother’s point of view, the new me is.  I don’t have the heart to tell him that our parents made me promise almost two decades ago not to tell him.  It would be vindictive and unnecessary to blame my mother for my brother’s ignorance in that way, especially as, since my father died, she has done everything she can to make up for failing the younger me, despite the unease it continues to cause her (and I currently owe at least 50% of my boob-job to her).

I couldn’t be close to my father because I could never be wholly myself with him.  Whenever we were together, we always shared the room with a large and ugly elephant: namely, that I had agreed to lie by omission to him about something that turned out to be too important to ignore.  I don’t have to pretend to be happy anymore, and – although it is appalling to have to admit it – I am more content having the memory of the man than I ever could have been with the man himself.  It would be a tragedy, however, if the same turned out to be true of my connection to my brother, because I don’t want to waste another relationship by making it conditional upon the censorship of an important facet of my personality and worldview, and by insisting upon making a taboo subject of my identity.

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