Sunday, 27 November 2016

If I Was Your Girl

I was browsing in an airport bookshop lately, and noticed the cover of this book, If I Was Your Girl, by Meredith Russo. The book was displayed reasonably prominently, and was featured as part of the Zoella book club, as a work of fiction for young adults (which is what they are calling teenagers these days, apparently).

If I were your girl: subjunctive, people!
Normally I wouldn't be too interested in fiction for young adults. When I was a young adult myself, I just read fiction for adults. My sister used to read books by Judy Blume, and she would usually show me the juicy parts. These astonished me in two ways. They astonished me because these were books marketed at teenagers, containing detailed descriptions of sexual activity that would likely cause many parents (including ours) to have conniptions. Second, they astonished me because they were depicting a world where teenagers seemed to have no trouble having sex; lots of sex. This seemed like a glimpse into some alien world. As a teenager who was having real trouble finding someone willing even to snog me, reading the books made me feel envious and uncomfortable.

Now that I am an adult, I don't see any reason to read young adult fiction at all. Unless it seems to feature the transgender flag on the cover, which is what drew my eye.

Naturally I bought it, and read it on the flight, all the way through. And now I thought I would write a review of it.

The book centres around the life of Amanda, an 18-yr old girl in her final year of high school. She joins a new school, and falls in love with Grant, a football player. The hook (at least from a transgender point of view) is that Amanda used to be Andrew. Their relationship goes through some ups and downs, before the big reveal, and the aftermath.

I read to the end of the book before I realised that the author herself, Meredith Russo, is a transwoman. She even includes a page of comments for cisgendered readers, as well as another page of comments for transgendered readers. She explains some of the fictional devices she required to use to make the story work. One obvious one is that nobody ever doubts or guesses Amanda's trans nature, because she is already "fully formed": post-surgery, post-hormones, and with a completely realistic face and body. Russo admits this is pretty unrealistic, and I am pleased that she did; for me it was one of the most difficult parts of the story to accept.

Meredith Russo
Russo was raised in Tennessee, and sets the story in a district she is familiar with. I can't help associating that region of the southern United States with God-fearin', gun-totin', Republican-votin' good-ole-boys. To be a transgender child growing up in that environment would be, no doubt, exceptionally difficult, lonely and painful. Amanda, our protagonist, is exposed to a series of very unpleasant events: parental rejection, violent beatings at school (where she is considered to be gay by the other students), and a failed suicide attempt. These events are described starkly (in a series of flashbacks), and the writing is powerful. I dare say they will resonate with young adults who feel different (for any reason), isolated and desperate. Even I got a few pangs.
I brought my wrist up to my chest and looked down. The identification bracelet said my name was Andrew Hardy. If I died, I realized, Andrew would be the name they would put on my tombstone. I thought of the words I wrote down for the counsellor: I should have been a girl.
Amanda begins to settle into her new school, and begins to make friends. She is pleased and gratified to find that she is accepted, though this pleasure is tempered with the knowledge that, if the truth of her background were known, she would surely be rejected.
The cicadas buzzed persistently in the growing dusk. I had read once that they lived underground for most of their lives, only emerging as adults to live out their final days. Was that going to be me? Was I going to live underground for the better part of my life, never coming out into the world? (...) I wondered if joy could ever be felt by itself without being tainted with fear and confusion, or if some level of misery was a universal constant, like the speed of light.
Trans model Kira Conley on the US cover
The parts of the story with which I found most resonance are where Amanda discovers her trans identity, and meets other trans people for the first time. She is mentored in her early journey by Virginia, who introduces her to members of her local transgender support group.
A woman with broad shoulders and a faint shadow of a beard under her make-up entered next. She looked strong and stout, but the longer I looked, the more I saw the beauty in her--here a light step, here a brief touch of the hair, here a wide, open smile. Boone said, "Evening, Rhonda," to greet her.
This resonates with me because of my preoccupation with how people see Vivienne. Since I started my journey, I have come out to a couple of dozen people, and they have all been complimentary about my appearance, even the ones who met Vivienne face to face. But did they have to make an effort to see past the man in the dress to really see Vivienne? And how much of an effort did they make?
I looked Virginia up and down and saw two separate people. One was the beautiful, statuesque angel who had been there to guide me through some of the hardest steps of my transition. The other was a woman with a jaw just a little too strong, forehead just a little too high, shoulders just a little too wide, and hands just a little too big.
Without giving the story away, Amanda begins to find fulfilment and happiness in her new life. Her relationship with her parents improves. She realises other students have their secrets too: one girl takes drugs; another is a lesbian. For me, Amanda's parents and schoolmates are somewhat simple and one-dimensional. Grant, the love interest, is more interesting, though again he is cast as someone who is all goodness: good-looking, pleasant, sensitive, humble, hard-working, popular, kind to his family. The most interestingly subtle character (Amanda aside) is the villain, Parker, another student, whose complex feelings and motives are explored.
His shadow stretched out past mine. I remembered Mom telling me how frightening men were, all men really, how helpless it often felt to be a woman among men, and for the first time I understood what she meant.
The romantic aspects of the plot are well-drawn: the breathless first kiss, and other faltering steps as the relationship between Grant and Amanda begins to play out. I am relieved beyond measure to report that Judy Blume's intimate depictions are largely absent. Though the book doesn't insult its readers by pretending everyone is a virgin when they leave high school, the sexual content is handled deftly and with subtlety, just as (in my opinion) it ought to be.

So in summary, what can I say about the book? I cannot judge it as a piece of young adult fiction, since I have so little knowledge of that genre with which to compare it. I have a friend who writes romantic fiction for a living, and she tells me there is a remarkably strict pattern that her books are expected to follow. I hope the same is not true of young adult fiction, but I wouldn't be surprised (only disappointed) to find that there is. Overall, I think the story is compelling enough, and readable enough (certainly I didn't get bored or struggle to finish it). I think some of the characters are a bit flat. I think that the story of Amanda's life is told with enough sympathy and emotional resonance that transgendered readers (like me) will find much to resonate with, and there is a reasonably positive ending to look forward to.

Blazing the trail: Luna in 2004
Russo clearly hopes that cisgendered young adults will also read the book and come away with more awareness and more sympathy towards transgendered people (of all ages). And it's this, I think, which holds the book back slightly for me. It just has a hint of being slightly contrived for this purpose; as if Amanda's relationship with Grant is shown to be completely pure and perfect to show just how much of a real girl Amanda actually is.

Nonetheless, Russo deserves encouragement. I think this book represents one more snowflake in the blizzard of transgender-related material in the popular media, to which we are now exposed, and it can only do us good to get more exposure, more sympathy and more conversations started. This is Russo's first book, and I hope she writes many more. I also hope that she isn't the "token trans writer" when young adult fiction is considered.

And there are very few other similar books out there. One which Russo mentions is Luna, by Julie Anne Peters. Another is a book which I have touched on before on this blog, Boy2Girl by Terence Blacker. To my knowledge, neither Peters nor Blacker are transgendered, and both have had success with many other books; therefore they are not as brave as Russo. They can afford to experiment with new themes, while Russo has put all her chips on this debut novel. Thankfully it seems to have gone down very well, and it has favourable reviews on GoodReads and Amazon, but the Guardian reviewer (like me) had some reservations.

I haven't read Luna, but I will order it and let you know my thoughts in due course. Meanwhile, I recommend that you get hold of If I Was Your Girl and give it a read. Or perhaps wave it under the nose of a nearby young adult for their comments. And yours, of course, are always welcome below.

Thursday, 3 November 2016

The End of Days

This is a post which I have been dreading to write for a very long time: the one where I talk about the end of my marriage.

Despite my very best efforts, my marriage has ended. And the ultimate reason is my cross-dressing. I guess by posting this I can both help myself to go through the necessary grieving process, and also help other people out there who might be contemplating similar problems.

What it feels like when your marriage is ending
My wife and I met in continental Europe in the early nineties. I thought she was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. She was living in another country, and spoke several languages. She was artistic and adventurous, where I was scholarly and conventional. We were both students at the time, and we were both seeing someone else. But there was definite chemistry. In the days before the Internet, we wrote long letters to one another. By a series of very unlikely steps, we saw each other again. I graduated, took a job, and in my first holiday, I went to visit her. By this time, she was living in the US, and we were both single.

I persuaded her to come to the UK, which she did, and we immediately moved in together. We married in the late nineties. My family adored her. My uncle (an academic) praised how clever she was. My grandfather said she was the most beautiful bride to walk down the aisle of our local church. Many people have, over many years, complimented me on how lucky I was to be married to someone like her.

I knew all along, of course, that my gender was not completely congruent with my apparent identity. I have known this ever since I can remember. I can remember wanting a pink blanket in kindergarten and being told I had to have a blue one. But I did not tell my wife any of these things.
Grotesque: Corporal Klinger

Partly I did not tell her because of shame: I was in my mid-twenties, and I knew next to nothing about my gender. Wherever I looked, crossdressers were figures of scorn, of ridicule. They seemed grotesque, repulsive. A great example would be Corporal Klinger, the MASH character who is trying to convince everyone he is crazy by dressing as a woman, so they will throw him out of the Army (har-har, what a wheeze). My internal identity was completely different to that. She already had a name in my mind. I pictured Vivienne as being like a wild animal, trapped and roaring in an unbreakable cage. Although I didn't quite know who Vivienne was, I knew that she and Klinger had nothing in common.

The other reason I didn't tell my wife was that I believed that being married to her would cure me. My trans feelings largely disappeared when I was with her, and I believed that I could choose to put crossdressing aside permanently. ("When I became a man, I put away childish things"). This was (I now realise) a very naïve belief, but nonetheless a fervent one. I was trying very hard not to be trans.

Of course it didn't last. About three years into the marriage, I broke down in tears, and told her my secret: that sometimes I like to dress in women's clothing. She was utterly shocked and horrified. That was the inflection point, the point which marked the start of the downward slope which has led to the end of the marriage.

At first things didn't really change. I purged. That didn't last. In all fairness, my wife tried to have a look at crossdressing, and see what it's about. One time we even went to a transvestite ball (I was in male mode) and she spoke to the other people to hear their stories. She was fascinated, sympathetic, charming. She made a very powerful impression on the people there. But as we came out, it was as if the door slammed. We got in the car to drive home. She didn't want to talk about it; didn't want to acknowledge it. Sitting in the darkness, I realised that she was probably shocked, digesting the implications of all of this. But she would come around. In a few days, we would be able to talk about it. But we never have; not one word from that day to this.
Never mentioned: crossdressing

And then there was the Dolly incident. My wife went to Manchester with her friend for a girly weekend. Unknown to them, their hotel was hosting an extravagant transvestite event in the ballroom. It was big, brash, loud and undeniable. My wife and her friend, both very attractive women, were cajoled to join the fun, and they did: laughing and dancing the night away with glamorous trannies. The following day, they got talking at breakfast to a few of them, and my wife said she was amazed by how normal they seemed: ordinary, pleasant guys. One of them, "Dolly", gave my wife his website details. She checked his website a day or so after coming home (without telling me) and was horrified to see pictures of him pouting in lingerie with his penis on display.

This one individual didn't intend to harm me, but did so very severely. What was he thinking? That she would be aroused? That she would think it was cool? Instead, she formed the very solid (and hard to dislodge) impression, that crossdressers, even the nice ones, even the "normal" ones, are not just after glamorous frocks, drinking and dancing, but are perverts behind closed doors. Thanks, Dolly.

It took me a while to realise how my wife has the ability to compartmentalise things in her life. It is as if she can take the idea of Vivienne, and all the trappings, all the accoutrements, and put them in a box, which is never acknowledged, never opened.

My wife came from a non-Western culture, where the behaviour of both men and women is rigidly proscribed. Even though she has lived in the West for decades, there are certain things which, to her, were not negotiable, and one of those things was that her husband mustn't wear a frock. It was even OK for other people to do that, as long as it wasn't her husband. She expected an alpha-male: indestructible, unshakeable, always in control. Never uncertain. Never vulnerable. Never tearful. Such a man would make her feel safe. That seems not wholly unreasonable, but there are two problems with it. The first is that I am not that man. I am not him today, and I have never been him. The second problem is that such a man doesn't actually exist.
Trapped: Vivienne

So she put Vivienne into that box, sealed the lid tightly, and pretended that Vivienne didn't exist. But it seemed that the harder my wife tried to suppress Vivienne, the harder Vivienne demanded to be expressed, to be heard, to be acknowledged. I searched for ways to explore Vivienne's identity without threatening my marriage. I joined the Beaumont Society, in the hope of opening a dialogue with like-minded people, but (as I say in my article) that didn't help much. I explored dressing, and had one or two makeovers. Eventually I started this blog.

What I wanted, most of all (and still do, I suppose) was simply acceptance. I wanted to be able to express this tender, vulnerable side of myself to the person who mattered most to me in the world. Vivienne wasn't just about the clothing; she was about the roles and expectations placed upon me because I happened to be born a boy. I wanted to have conversations with my wife about it, not strangers on the Internet. I wanted to dress at home, not in makeover shops in other cities. I wanted to be accepted for who I am, not for who she (and in fairness, everyone else during my upbringing) told me I ought to be. I wanted to enjoy being myself, being whole.

Instead, she insisted that this side of me was disgusting, unbearable. It must never be spoken of, never acknowledged, never accepted, never tolerated. But gradually that disgust, that poison, began to leak out of the box. It began to be aimed at aspects of me which were not associated with Vivienne. My wife began to gradually shut me out, to express John Gottman's Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: the evocative name he gave to the behaviours which start to appear when the death-knell of a relationship is ringing loud and clear. We were four for four. And it was utter agony for me.

It didn't matter that I put rigid boundaries around my dressing. Four episodes a year, or less, and always, always in complete secrecy. We could not go shopping to a department store without her fearing that I was looking at the female mannequins and picturing myself in their clothing. She came to view Vivienne as the other woman, the one who came first in my affections.

It didn't matter that the other aspects of our lives were good: I had a good job and provided a good standard of living; we lived in a lovely house and had lovely kids and lovely friends. I didn't have any other obnoxious habits: gambling, drinking, drugs. That was all outweighed by the fact that I was not the alpha male that she thought she married.
Corrosive to relationships: fear

I see now that she was motivated by fear. Fear that I was going to start having sex with men. For the record, this was never my plan, and still isn't. Fear that I was going to start taking hormones and having surgery. Again, this was never the plan, and it still isn't. Fear that I was going to completely come out, and start showing up at the school parents' evening in a skirt and heels, where I would be a figure of contempt and ridicule (no matter how polite they might be to my face), and a cause for the kids to be mocked or bullied. Fear that other people would look down upon her: what on Earth possessed you to marry that freak?

The antidote to fear is communication, and this was another sticking point: she just would not communicate. The prospect, the existence of Vivienne, was so terrifying, so repugnant to her, that she could not have an ordinary conversation about it. I would talk, and she would not listen. I would listen, and she would not talk. It wasn't just that she didn't talk to me. She didn't talk to anyone: didn't confide in a close friend. Her fears were grinding around inside her, destroying her on the inside. On the outside, she began to shun me openly. The intimacy dried up years ago. To describe what happened, I can't do better than the words of Yoda:
"Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering".
But we still pretended, to the outside world, that everything was fine. For myself, I did everything I possibly could to keep the show on the road. I moved us here to New Zealand. But coming here permanently, we brought Vivienne, and all the other problems, right along with us.

Fabulous but unworn: shoes
In among all the agony were glimpses of hope. Just occasionally, she would buy me girly gifts, such as this pair of fabulous wedge heels. As soon as I opened the box, I was excited and I wanted to try them on. But the look of disgust on her face, as I did so, made me instantly take them off, and I have never worn them since. I think she was really trying to make it work. But in one sense, these glimpses of hope (she bought me the shoes; she must hope I liked them) were actually worse than nothing at all, because the false hope, and the let-down afterward, were especially difficult to bear.

I started to take antidepressants. They were not a solution, but they helped me cope with the daily grinding agony of my life. I am still on them. And I took us to counselling. Good counselling, with a highly-recommended professional psychologist, who saw us for two years, together and separately. But even with his help, we were unable to negotiate, to compromise. My intake of alcohol and comfort food jumped sharply upwards.

In order to illustrate my despair and agony at my situation, I often used the phrase burning to death to describe how I was feeling. I was trying to show how desperately miserable I was in my life: I was desperate to change, to move, to get out of where I was. But, in a very real way, I was also being consumed. Each time we had an argument; each time she stonewalled my feelings, I lost a bit more energy, a bit more commitment. I knew I could not hold on much longer. I knew that one day, the last bit of energy would be gone, and the marriage would be dead.

It didn't matter. My wife was unable to change. And I don't mean this harshly. I realise now that, whether she chose to or not, she could not change her feelings. As for me, I had played my last card. I had nothing left to offer.

I remember the exact moment I realised that the marriage was over. For years, there had been two paths in front of me: the path to stay and try to fix things (which was painful, and exhausting) and the path to leave and start again (which was painful, and exhausting). But always, when I looked at those two paths, the path to leave always seemed the more painful. But one day, the see-saw just tipped the other way, and it has never tipped back. I realised, with sudden clarity: I was never going to be happy if I stayed in this marriage. The realisation was terrible but inescapable.
I can't heeeeeear you!

When I told my wife it was over, she was astonished. Where did this come from? she wanted to know. Didn't you hear me when I said I was burning to death? I replied. But it turns out she didn't get it: she couldn't grasp it. She had denied it, pushed it away, in the same way she did with Vivienne: it's too painful to contemplate, so I will pretend it doesn't exist.

Since then, her anger has gone from being red hot to being blue hot, like a blowtorch. The thing she feared most, that her husband would leave, has come to pass. She cannot--yet--accept that she helped to bring this about. She cannot accept one iota of responsibility for what happened. It's all my fault; that's her truth. And it's OK.

I have called this post The End of Days, because it really feels like that from my point of view. I am losing my lovely home, and I now live in a small rental house. I will get shared custody of my children. That cosy image I once had, of having a nice job, a nice wife, a nice house, and nice kids, and being happy, has turned out to be an empty dream. And unfortunately that dream ends here.

This blog has been profoundly healing for me in so many ways. It has helped me to crystallise my feelings about myself, and my gender, and my identity. Although it's long, this article is only a drop in the bucket compared to thirty-odd volumes of hand-written journals. That banner at the top of the screen? That's one of my journals, and one of my collection of fountain pens. I write every day, when I get the chance, and I have used those journals to explore every possible avenue, every possible way, to keep the marriage on the road, to keep myself sane until the kids got a bit older, to conceptualise my wife's behaviour in different, more manageable ways. I know I am leaving this marriage having tried my absolute best to save it, using every resource I possess.

I also offer these experiences to you, my readers, in case some of you are in a similar position, and these insights help to crystallise your position.

I know that all is not lost; that there will be a new chapter in my life soon. But I don't know what it will look like, and that uncertainty is a fresh kind of agony for me. Where will I live? What will I look like? What will I wear? What will happen to the kids? What will happen to my wife? What role will Vivienne play in my life? I have no answers to any of this, and discussion will need to wait for another day, and another blog post. Meanwhile, let's close the book.

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Addendum

Katie Robbins wrote a powerful and thought-provoking article, with a similar theme, which you can read here. And hers is a lot shorter!