More than three months have now gone past since I finished my sessions with my gender counsellor Colleen. At the end of that process I formulated a plan to hopefully allow me to be fulfilled in my female life while retaining a male existence for the sake of my family. I have referred to that plan several times in this blog, and I wrote about it in detail in a post entitled “The End Of The Beginning“. In summary the bullet points of the plan were :
1. Coming out to people I trust
2. If asked directly if I am transgender, I will tell the truth
3. Maximise my opportunities to be my female self
4. Become involved in a group outside the trans* community
5. I won’t let fear stop me from being myself
I have started the process of coming out to people I trust. I came out to my friends Jonathan and Vincent in early October, and then had dinner with Vin and his partner Deirdre a few weeks ago. Jonathan will be having his first encounter with Kirsty when we go for a coffee together in a couple of days’ time.
Nobody has yet asked me directly if I am trans*, so that particular situation has yet to come up. Having said that, some nail varnish residue was spotted in work again around a month ago by a couple of colleagues, and I was asked “Did you get your nails done again Bob?”. I just replied that yes, I had, and changed the subject. There was a part of me that was willing one of them to come up with the supplementary question, which I was genuinely prepared to answer honestly, but there was just a wee bit of sniggering and then the normal discussion resumed. It seems pretty likely that they suspect something in a t-direction, although they could still just be assuming that daughter no2 thought painting her dad’s nails was so much fun first time round that she now does it regularly.
I don’t think anyone can accuse me of failing to maximise my opportunities to be Kirsty, which leaves points 4 and 5. As far as facing down fear is concerned, I think the biggest fears were confronted much earlier in the year, when I confessed how I felt to my wife, the first time I phoned the Butterfly Club, the first time I stepped out in public and so on. At least until last night anyway, which brings us on to point 4 and the main point of this post.
For quite some time, since long before I accepted myself as a trans woman, I have had an inclination to join a book group. I have always enjoyed reading, and always have a book on the go. The problem I had was, how does one actually go about finding a book group? A few months ago Mrs Kirsty managed to join a group in the local library, but we couldn’t really justify both going to that. So I knew I wanted to get involved in a book group, and then when I decided that in order to build a female life for myself, that had to include becoming involved in a group outside the trans* community, a book group seemed the logical choice. But I was still at something of a loss as to how to get involved. Going to a library-based group wasn’t really an option as the books come from the library, which I would have to join as Bob, thereby causing some confusion when Kirsty turned up for the meetings. So what to do?
I was discussing this with Andrea while we were away on our little holiday in October, and she suggested trying Meetup.com. Andrea joined a walking group via meetup.com several months ago, and she has made a real go of it and completely integrated herself into that group. I knew that she had found the group through meetup, but having never heard of the site before I naively assumed that it was a site for walkers and hikers, i.e. not me. But you know what they say, “assume” makes an ass of u and me (my old sales manager used to say that and it really annoyed me), so Andrea pointed out that it was for all sorts of groups. So on I went to the site and quickly identified the one and only book group in Belfast, set up a profile and clicked “join”. A week later my membership was still pending, so I contacted the group leader, who did reply quickly, explaining that due to work commitments she was no longer able to lead the group, she was looking for someone else to take on the responsibility or else it would wither on the vine. It looked like I was fated not to get to a book group at all.
I spent a bit of time perusing the various groups in and around Belfast, but a lot of them seemed to be either of little interest to me, or very sparsely attended. I did stumble across one which was more of a general social outings group, which consisted mainly of pubs, cinema and comedy. This caught my fancy a little but looking down the list of other events in the month ahead I discovered a monthly book group within the wider social outings group. I clicked “join”, my membership was approved the same day, and I clicked on “RSVP” on the book group to say I was going. I had found my group!
This all took place around a little over two weeks ago. The book for this month was “The Secret Life Of Bees” by Sue Monk Kidd, a tale of a 14-year-old girl with a dead mother and an unloving father taken in by three beekeeping sisters in South Carolina in 1964. I’m not going to do the whole review here (short version – it was OK, very good in parts, quite dull in others, 6/10) but I downloaded it to my Kindle and iPad and started reading.
As Bob, I am a member of a well-known society which shall remain nameless, as is Mrs Kirsty, and in the past as Bob I have been a member of the all-Ireland committee of this society and would be quite well known in those circles. This may seem like a bit of a random thing to put into the post at this point, but there is a point. When I originally clicked RSVP to say I would be attending the book group, there were a total of 7 people confirmed, including me. A nice size. On Friday evening week before last, as I was around halfway through the book, I noticed that the numbers had risen to 8. I thought I would have a look and see who this new person was. My heart sank. It was someone from that society, someone that, while never really a close friend, would know me and Mrs Kirsty well enough to have been a guest at our wedding. Let’s call her Shirley.
I walked into the kitchen, where Mrs Kirsty was loading the dishwasher, with a crestfallen look on my face. She saw me and immediately asked what the matter was. “Shirley Chapman’s going to the book group” I replied. She burst out laughing, I think at the ridiculousness of the situation. I genuinely don’t believe there was any schadenfreude going on, it was just so unlikely that this person would pop up unannounced. There are around half a million people in the greater Belfast area. There were about 60 people at our wedding. What were the chances of one of them turning up at that book group? (answer – about 1 in 1000 I reckon) As I saw it I had two options: Not go to the group, or come out to Shirley in advance of the meeting. I told Mrs Kirsty my thoughts, and her reply really surprised me.
“Just go, she’ll never recognise you.”
Wow. Just go. She was actually encouraging me. Not only was she encouraging me, she was telling me that I wouldn’t be recognised by someone who has known me at least casually for about 20 years, and that I probably would just be seen as another (very tall) woman. Wow indeed. There was more encouragement to come. I told her that regardless of Shirley’s presence, I was very nervous about how I would be perceived, and if I would be accepted. She was very philosophical. Go there, she said, be yourself, and if you have a bad experience then never go back. It won’t be the end of the world. I hoped she was right.
My worry was that if I had a bad experience it might not be the end of the world, but it might be a very major setback on this journey to goodness knows where. If I am to have a female life with any sort of semblance of normality, I have to be able to integrate socially with all sorts of people, not just other trans* women (much as I love Andrea, Michelle, Ruth et al, we are quite a specialised group). If I had a bad experience, then maybe that sort of integration might seem ever more distant and unattainable. If it went well, however, who knows what would come next?
I went round my trans* friends asking for advice. Andrea was in agreement with Mrs Kirsty. Just go, and it’ll all be fine. Ruth was I think leaning more towards coming out to Shirley in advance, although she did note that just turning up was the “high risk, high reward” strategy. It could all go pear-shaped, but if it came off, the affirmation would be remarkable. Michelle was more circumspect. While noting that if she were in my position, she wouldn’t go and would find another group, she then went on to say something that struck me as very insightful. Once you establish that you are going to run, you then have to decide how far and how often you run. Maybe not running is the better option.
In the end there were two things that swayed me. Going back to my plan at the start of this post, point 5 was that I wasn’t going to let fear stop me from being myself. What was it if not fear, that was causing me problems? Fear of being recognised by Shirley, fear of being read as TS and ridiculed, overtly or otherwise. I was not and am not going to be beaten by thoughts such as that. Then when I hinted to Mrs Kirsty that I was considering coming out to Shirley in advance, she said that it wouldn’t be fair on Shirley. Mrs K was still convinced that Shirley wouldn’t recognise me, and that if I did tell her in advance, then I would risk spoiling her enjoyment of the group, maybe even put her off going at all, and might even increase the risk of being outed to the rest of the group. So I resolved to just turn up and not give any indication that I was TS to anyone, even the group leader.
I say all this and it sounds very grand and noble. There is a part of me that suspects that the real reason that I just turned up was that it involved the fewest actions for me to do, and I am fundamentally lazy.
The book group was due to take place in a small Belfast hotel last night, Sunday 23rd November. I left home in late afternoon and drove up to the Belfast Butterfly Club premises in Lisburn to get changed. I then met up with Andrea for a coffee and a panini (for me at least) and most importantly for a pep talk. I was also pleased to see her because it was the first time we had met up since she told her HR department and her manager about her plans to transition in work – go Andrea! It was so good to be able to spend an hour in her company before going on to the book group. It really calmed me down quite a bit, and got me in the Kirsty zone again. But before too long Andrea pointed out that it was nearly 6.30 and I needed to get going. So with a quick hug goodbye and her good luck wishes, I was on my way in to Belfast.
It was bang on the 7pm start time when I parked up outside the hotel. My heart was thumping 19 to the dozen, but there was no way I was going to chicken out. I had one last look in the mirror, touched up my lipstick, and in I went. I had been told in advance that the book group was in a small room right beside the front door of the hotel, so I saw just pushed open the door to the room and saw around 10 people sitting in a circle of chairs in a cosy little room with a Christmas tree at the window. “Book group?” I asked. Of course it was. I removed my scarf and coat, draping them over a free chair, and I sat down. I did a quick scan round the room, there were only two men and around 8 or 9 women, including me. However that figure didn’t include Shirley as she wasn’t there. Was I going to get away without seeing her? No. She came in shortly after me, walked to the opposite side of the circle and took a seat directly facing me. She was obviously a regular at the book group, several of the other women greeted her with a “hi Shirley” as she sat down. She “Hello”ed them back. What she didn’t do, however, was pay me any attention or give any indication that I was anything other than a woman she hadn’t met before. Which I suppose I am, from one point of view.
At this point I hadn’t actually spoken yet, but the group leader Joanne started a round of introductions. This was it, far and away the biggest test of my female speaking voice so far. I was about half way round the room, so I had a bit of time to hear the sort of things that people were saying. The man sitting on my right, Steve, was another first-timer, and had plenty to say for himself but I was up next.
“Hi, I’m Kirsty. Lived in Newtownabbey all my life. I’ve been wanting to join a book group for ages but didn’t know where to find one. Then my friend had found a walking group through meetup.com so she suggested looking for a book group on there. And here I am”.
And that was it. I had given no planning to it, I just said the first thing that came into my mind. Nobody burst out laughing, no disapproving looks, just smiles, nods and a few “Hi Kirsty”s. If I was looking for acceptance, I might be on the verge of finding it. The introductions passed on to the woman on my immediate left, Madeleine, who was a longstanding member of the group, and then on round the rest of the group finishing up with my old acquaintance Shirley, who simply said “I’m Shirley”. Woman of few words. The discussion then began in earnest, although a couple of late arrivals interrupted the flow. The late arrivals were one male, one female, so while the man count was up to three, it was still a predominantly female group. I think this was about perfect for me, I wouldn’t have wanted a completely female group, but nor would I have wanted many more men as it would have changed the dynamic of the group.
The discussion was by turns serious, fun, literary, silly, and a little bit flirtatious when the waiter came into the room to take our coffee orders. Although I didn’t say much at the start, as time went on and my confidence grew, I began to get more and more involved in the conversation and I ended up just really enjoying myself. While coffees were being served I had a few little one-on-one chats with the people on either side of me, Madeleine and Steve, and feeling that they were viewing me as a woman like any other, that built my confidence even more. Madeleine in particular I really liked. A little bit older than me but a really mischievous, infectious personality and a lot of fun.
There was one particular comedy highlight of the night. I had expressed a view that some of the metaphors in the book were less than subtly handled – equating the protagonist’s life without a mother to a beehive after the queen dies etc – and Steve commented “Oh that’ll be for the American market”. Sensing some imminent egg on face, someone else asked him “Are you saying Americans are stupid” and he replied “No, but sometimes they need things spelled out to them very clearly”. No sooner had we all finished chuckling when the male late arrival, who up until this point had been silent, decided to give us his views on the issues raised in the book, displaying a fine American accent. He was from Chicago via Georgia, and to his eternal credit he didn’t mention a word about Steve’s comment, but I am sure that every other person in that room thought “Oh God, he’s American!” We’ll all laugh about it one day.
Over the course of around an hour and a half I got completely involved in the chat, and felt such acceptance that I was fit to burst. Eventually we settled upon two books for the next meeting, which is delayed until January due to Christmas holidays getting in the way, so I had better get reading. As we were all standing up to leave, I had a few other chats with another couple of people, Jean and Tony, who were really friendly and both made a point of saying that they hoped to see me again next time. Wow.
Something that I really only realised as I was driving back up to Lisburn to get changed, was that I was so much more comfortable in what was, Shirley notwithstanding, a group of strangers than I would have been in my male persona. It’s like I said in counselling many months ago, I think when presenting as male with people I don’t know particularly well, I try to put up a front of how a man is supposed to act. I know I do it, and I can’t stop myself from doing it. It’s just instinct now. The problem is, it’s a barrier and it stops me from revealing my real self to people. And I don’t mean my real self as in the woman I am, I just mean my real personality regardless of gender. So people don’t get to know me well, and the barriers stay up, and Bob ends up with hardly any friends. But as Kirsty I felt I was me from the get go without barriers. Much more relaxed, much more sympathetic, a better listener and altogether happier. And those words don’t really do it justice, I mean I am way more at ease in company as a woman, as different as night and day. Obvious really.
By the time I got home again an hour or so later there was already an email waiting from Madeleine “It was good to see you”. This is something you can do on meetup – after a meetup finishes you get an email listing everyone and you have the option to click “good to see you”. And I got one. So I reciprocated. And then sent ones to a few other people, the ones I had spoken to directly and to the organiser. I have had four of these things now. These people aren’t trans, they aren’t LGBT activists, they’re just ordinary decent people and I’m one of them. And it was good to see me.
I’ve pretty much had a smile on my face the whole time since last night. It’s still there now. Another hurdle negotiated, this journey continues unabated. It’s quite a ride.