And so predictably, after spending the first few paragraphs of my last blog post saying how I don’t feel the need to write about how I went here and I did that, I’m now going to write about how I went here and I did that. More importantly however, where I went and what I did provoked some very strong feelings in me, and I’m not quite sure what to make of those feelings. So despite the diary aspect, it’s really just another bout of navel-gazing.
Back last summer I underwent a short course of counselling provided by an organisation called Gender Essence Support Services. I found the whole experience to be hugely beneficial for me in trying to organise how I feel about my gender, and in helping me to accept myself for who I really am. I have referred back to the experience many times on the pages of this blog and I’m still trying to stick to the plan for a balanced life that I arrived at on completion of these sessions.
In an apparently unrelated development, just before Christmas I joined Facebook as Kirsty. Any readers who know me well enough to know my real surname, you’ll be able to find me on there if you’re interested. One of the first things that I “liked” on Facebook was Gender Essence, so when I learned through their Facebook page that there was to be a “Gender Essence Drop-in afternoon” at the Belfast LGBT centre, I made sure I was going to be able to go and show my support for this group that had helped me so much. The drop-in was on Saturday 28th February, so I made sure I was available. I wasn’t sure just what I was expecting, but I wanted to go.
It’s not that often these days that I get to go out by myself. I’ll often be doing things with Andrea, Michelle or both. But today I was doing this solo. Sort of. I had mentioned it to Andrea the previous Wednesday to see if she was going, and she appeared in two minds. She also had quite a busy day lined up anyway, so there wasn’t really a prospect of spending much time together. However, she was going into Belfast anyway, so I said I’d text her when I arrived in the city centre.
I got up to our support group premises in Lisburn shortly before 2pm, and had barely begun to get changed when my heart sank at the unmistakeable sound of the door handle turning. I heard the door opening, and fearing that the mystery visitor was going to walk into the changing room I pushed the door lightly open to see who it was. It was our club president Linda on a flying visit. Linda is the only person in the group who has seen me in male form, back on that first night I went to the Belfast open meeting nearly a year ago. And now she has seen Bob a second time, albeit only his head. I didn’t like that she saw me like that, but I was grateful it was Linda and not anyone else. If it had been Michelle I would have been traumatised.
I arrived in Belfast City Centre fully reverted into my true female form by around 3.15, and I texted Andrea to let her know that I had arrived. But I wasn’t going to sit around waiting for her to reply so for the first time ever (I think) I walked out into Belfast’s main shopping area on a busy Saturday afternoon all by myself. I felt fabulously normal, if that’s not a contradiction. It was a fairly miserable day, so Castle Court (main indoor shopping mall) was very busy with people staying out of the rain, and I attracted not a jot of attention from anyone. But I wasn’t out for a casual afternoon, I wasn’t there just to “get out”, I was a woman with a mission. A mission to buy a new handbag. Yes, laugh it up if you like, but my old one is now bursting at the seams so it was time to upgrade to a larger model.
Without going into too much detail, I made my way round to TK Maxx, which had an excellent selection of bags. I spent about 20 minutes browsing the various offerings – the first one that I liked and picked up was £150, so it was rapidly replaced – I eventually settled on a final choice, a larger black bag with a nice decorative tassle and lots of little compartments for a very reasonable £25. As has been observed before by Michelle, she and I both tend to emulate our other halves, whether out of shared taste or a desire to be like them, and this bag is definitely the type of thing that Mrs K would use.
As I stood in the fairly lengthy queue waiting to pay, I saw that Andrea had texted to say she was in Clarks getting herself some more shoes for work. I called her to say I’d be round shortly, then reached the front of the queue. There were four checkouts opened, three of which were being operated by women and one by a man. I kept my fingers crossed that I didn’t get the male checkout but of course it was his voice that called out “next please” so I shuffled forward with a nervous smile on my face. As it turned out, he was really nice and friendly and we had a little chat about the weather. As I departed he said “I hope the rain goes off for you soon”. I’m not sure why I’m so much more nervous about dealing with men than women but I need to get over it.
I made my way over to Clarks to find Andrea mid-negotiation with a sales assistant, and looking every inch the happy full-time woman than she is. I loitered like a spare part for 5 minutes until she was finished, and then the two of us walked back round to TK Maxx so that she could return a handbag that was just too heavy. So she was replenishing their bag stocks that I had depleted ten minutes earlier.
We had a bit of a discussion about what to do next. Andrea was unsure if she wanted to go to the Gender Essence drop-in, particularly since it was still raining quite heavily and we had to walk there. However when I assured her it was only a short walk she agreed to accompany me.
We arrived at the Belfast LGBT centre to find Gender Essence head honcho (sorry don’t know her actual title) Keira, Adrianne whom we already know from our support group, and another trans woman who introduced herself as Fay(e). Well actually there was one other person there whom I hadn’t expected to see – my counsellor Colleen. I was so pleased to see her, she is such a lovely caring person (goes with the territory I suppose). I introduced her to Andrea, and then we had a little catch-up. She asked how I had got on in the big trip to Eastbourne (er, amazing) thanked me for dropping her an email to let her know how I had got on after my first visit to my book group (finding a non-trans*-specific group was part of the plan I had worked out with her) and asked how I was getting on. I told her I was doing great, then realised to whom I was speaking and qualified that by adding that as Kirsty I’m doing great, but perhaps not so great in my other identity. She reminded me that she’s still there and I just have to ask if I want a few more sessions with her. Maybe.
We were there for around 45 minutes. It was nice to meet Keira after corresponding with her by email previously – it was she who had put me together with Colleen. However as the time there wore on there was something that became increasingly apparent to me – Andrea, Adrianne, Keira and Fay(e) are all full time. I am not. It felt like an unbridgeable chasm. What am I doing here with these people? I haven’t earned the right to be here. I haven’t taken that step and cast aside the old “wrong” identity. And while I continued to participate in the conversation my mind was silently disappearing down that rabbit hole. What’s the difference between these women and me? They’re brave. I’m a coward. No matter how much I dress up my continued part-time status as me caring for my family and putting them first, I get this uneasy feeling that I’m just kidding myself and the real reason I’m still part-time is cowardice, pure and simple.
I should make it clear that these are my thought processes at the time. In the cold light of day I know I have as much right to be there as anyone else. But the underlying feeling that cowardice plays a not insignificant role in my continued part-time status remains.
At the same time as I was undergoing that internal bout of self-flagellation, I was experiencing a contradictory feeling, which was asking myself “Why am I here?”. Very existential. It’s not that long since I wrote about my idea of closets being like Russian dolls, and this struck me as an example of an unnecessary closet. And really, what was actually going on? A small group of trans women chatting fairly aimlessly about matters unrelated to being trans, while closeted away from the real world. And the benefit of that is? No, I don’t know what the benefit of that is. Pleasant enough, but as the kids on the street would say, a bit meh. So aside from the bad feeling about being the only part-timer in the room, I didn’t really get a great deal out of the experience, other than being genuinely delighted to see Colleen again.
I saw Andrea stirring and nodded my head to ask if she was leaving. She nodded yes, got up, said her goodbyes and after a quick hug from me she was off. I was around 5 minutes behind her. As it happens, I had completely misinterpreted her gestures and she thought I was coming with her, meanwhile I knew that she was going to a classical music concert and thought she needed to rush off so didn’t bother to go with her since she didn’t specifically ask. Bit of a communication breakdown, but we’ll just put it down to experience.
Once I was back out in the real world I felt completely fine. Rather than going straight back to the car, there was time for a little bit more window shopping, so I browsed round Evans and nv, saw a few items that I quite liked but nothing really caught my fancy enough to even try on, never mind purchase. Then it was back to the car and up to Lisburn for a quick bit of grocery shopping in Tesco, then a trip to Costa for a takeaway coffee before going back to the club premises to get changed. Except when I arrived, there was Linda again, working at the computer. It was fine, I was in no rush, so I sat chatting with Linda enjoying my coffee until she left and I got changed.
This was really a day of two halves. Being at the Gender Essence event was a pleasant enough chat, but suffused with a feeling of why-am-i-here and also one of inadequacy. However, outside that event was a completely different story. It is something of a novelty these days that I get to go out by myself and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I don’t want to say that I dislike being in company, because that isn’t the case at all, but I’m one of those people who enjoys her own company too. I quite like doing things by myself and being on my own from time to time. And to go out on a wet Saturday afternoon, not dressed up at all (just jeans, jumper, coat and boots), going round the shops buying things that I actually needed instead of aimlessly going out for the sake of going out, well it felt like the most wonderful oxymoron: gloriously banal, joyously normal. It was the way a normal Saturday afternoon should be – not exciting, not touristy, but just right.
What a bizarre contradiction I am – feeling all churned up about sitting in the closet and suffering all sorts of emotional reactions to that, but spending a few hours out in public interacting with everyday people with nary a second thought other than how normal it all is. Struggling with the easy stuff (being trans behind closed doors), while having no difficulties with what many perceive as the harder stuff (being out in the real world). Not as hard as coming out to friends family and colleagues, but I know there are plenty of transpeople who would love to be able to have the comfort and relative ease with which I seem to be able to go about my business as a woman. Sometimes I need to remind myself of that. I do ok.