So for the second time in the last month, a passing comment in one of Ruth’s blog posts leads me off down a whole train of thought which blossoms into a post of my own. The subject this time? Support groups. Who is supporting whom? Who needs them? What exactly are they? And just what is the nature of the support that is being given and received? The relevant few lines from Ruth’s blog were;
The next time I saw Michelle I pointed this out to her, and we both had a bit of a laugh at just how disappointed Ruth might be if she were ever to turn up for one of our support group meetings. Vibrant is not a word that springs to mind. That’s not to say that it’s awful by any means, but it is just a few people sitting round talking and drinking tea. Of course, without my support group I would never have reached the point that I am at today, whatever that may be, but looking critically at the actual experience of being there, it’s not setting my spine a-tingling with excitement. So just who is it for, and what has changed in me that has caused this change in how I perceive the place? To illustrate this, I’m going to expand a little on a few sentences I wrote last time round about how my friendship with Andrea and Michelle blossomed alongside my own confidence in going out as a woman.
The first time I arrived at the Belfast Butterfly Club, it was the first time I had ever walked along a street presenting as female. It was only the short distance from my car to the door, no more than 40 metres, but it felt momentous at the time. Just getting me to do that was an achievement in itself after years of suppression of these feelings about my gender identity. Once in, I was greeted by Linda, whom I had met the previous week at the open meeting at a different venue, but who almost invariably presents as male. Then inside, there were two persons presenting female. Michelle, who has gone on to become a very good friend, and Jane, whom I have come to respect as time goes on. However, while Michelle is a few years older than me, Jane is considerably older and we were never likely to become close friends. So there was Michelle, who had been coming for years, getting changed, sitting behind closed doors (or stepping outside for a cigarette in the bad old days, now long gone) then getting changed back and going home. I realised very quickly that this was not what I wanted, and that I needed some sort of a female life, not just dressing up with other men (as I saw things at the time). Then in walked Andrea.
Andrea greeted me on arrival, and then proceeded to give the details of the shopping trip she had just done, as herself. I instantly perked up at this, because I just thought that if she can do it, I can do it to. Eventually. We managed a little chat while making a cup of tea and she told me that she identified as TS, planned to transition eventually (bet she didn’t think she’d be full time within the year though!) and discussed feminine vocalisation techniques. This was a breath of fresh air for me because being as authentic as possible was important to me, but when I had raised the subject of vocal technique a week previously with Linda, she had replied not to bother, and just whisper or say nothing. It was so good to finally meet someone for whom these things mattered, and we did hit it off very quickly. Plus, she said even at that stage with my awful big blonde wig that she could “see the girl in me”, words which I don’t think I will ever forget.
So two weeks later, there I was in my new honey blonde bob taking my first proper steps out in public, just a quick trip in and out of Tesco. That was another beginning, and it was one that I did by myself. I didn’t tell anyone I was going to do it, it was something I had to do alone. And I did it. And all was well. As the weeks wore on, I got more and more daring with my outings, but all on my own. And after those outings, it was back to the support group HQ for the comedown. Eventually, Andrea and I began to go out together, but as friends and equals. I couldn’t have gone along with her for support, or with anyone else. It would have felt like I needed a crutch to lean on, and that’s not what I wanted. I had to stand on my own or fall on my own. I had to be my own woman, not someone else’s apprentice. And I think I have achieved that.
Meanwhile, back in the support group, Michelle was there every week the same, behind closed doors, but expressing some interest in perhaps maybe one day coming out for a meal with Andrea and me, but not until autumn when the nights drew in and she could go out under cover of darkness. I’ll not dwell more on Michelle’s late blossoming, because she has written very eloquently about it over on her own blog. Eventually, by late 2014 / early 2015, Michelle had gained her wings and like me, wouldn’t dream of just spending the evening behind closed doors. She definitely got there by a longer and more circuitous route than I did, but the important thing is that she got there. But I do wonder if I hadn’t joined, would Michelle still be there doing the same routine of coming in, getting changed, sitting, getting changed back, leaving again. It’s quite shocking when I think about it.
And the purpose of all this? It’s really to illustrate my original question. What is the point of a support group? If Andrea hadn’t decided to join the Belfast Butterfly Club a few weeks before me, would I still have gone out in public? Almost certainly. Knowing that she was doing it gave me more confidence that it was possible for me, but I know I couldn’t have sat in that room all night every week for years as Michelle did. If I hadn’t gone along to the support group at all, would I have ended up going out in public? I would say probably not. I wanted to, of course, but I needed the support group HQ as a base from which to strike out. I’m not sure I would have been able to jump straight to the “out in public” phase from being completely behind closed doors in my own home. I needed that staging post of being with some other trans* people in a safe haven, even if that stage only lasted for literally a fortnight, and even if in the end the main purpose of being there was to make myself realise that being there wasn’t enough.
So a vibrant, well-run group? Well, within the constraints of the extremely limited resources and numbers that we have, I suppose the Belfast Butterfly Club is reasonably well run. But vibrant? No. Not for me anyway. I was very lucky that I joined at a time when someone else was there who was on my wavelength. If Andrea hadn’t been there, I would have been flying completely solo. And without tales of shopping trips and meals out together, it’s possible that Michelle mightn’t have stretched her wings either. But what we have done, all the good stuff, is when we have left the group behind and gone off and done our own thing as friends. Yes, it was the group that brought us together, but what we have done wasn’t the group, it was us.
I still plan to go along most Wednesdays for the foreseeable future. Firstly, as long as I remain part-time, it’s good to have an “anchor” at least once a week when Mrs K and the little Kirstys know and expect that I will be out. Secondly, while the option of a roadside transformation still exists, having access to the premises is much preferable and much safer for getting ready to go out. And thirdly, what happens when the next Kirsty walks in? I want to be there for her when she does, and she will.
So I think that our type of support group, such as it is, works for three different groups, although individuals could be members of more than one at a time. There are people like I was, trans* ingenues turning up not knowing what to expect, passing through the stage of support group before striking out into the world. There are people like I am now, whose family circumstances mean they can’t be who they want to be at home so need a home-from-home, changing facilities and a regular circle of friends. And there is a third group, one of which I am not and never have been a member. People who have no real interest in going out in public, but who need to get dressed up every so often to relieve a pent-up need. We have several such members, and coming along every so often and getting dressed up to the nines is enough for them. Whether they genuinely have no desire to go out, or just view themselves as not passable enough to go out, I don’t know. However, it is for people like this that the support group is truly invaluable, somewhere to go to be themselves in a judgement-free and accepting environment. I suppose they aren’t that different to me, it’s just that I do my “being myself” in public.
Ultimately, I only need the club for changing facilities. I could just go there, get changed, leave and not come back. I wouldn’t do that, at least not on a regular basis, but what I need is to feel like I am fulfilling some sort of female role, or being perceived as female because I feel female. And I have a suspicion that by spending too much time in a support group I may just be marking myself out as not-quite-female.
This brings me on to something of a side issue, but related to support and the wider trans* community. I wrote a couple of weeks ago about an event that I had initially been sceptical of, and then had second thoughts about and had decided to go. Well, I have now had third thoughts having actually seen the publicity. I’ll not go into the details because I don’t think it’s fair to point at something that people are clearly putting a lot of work into and be negative about it, but it’s something that was proposed to me as a new evening for trans* people with changing facilities in a safe environment. I thought it might be a new Butterfly Club-style support group. But no, it’s a trans* club night. A lot of people might think, “Great! Get out the mini dress and high heels, here we go!”, and indeed I considered it myself, but ultimately I have decided not to go. As I said earlier, what I crave is acceptance as a woman. To be perceived as a woman, and treated as such. To go to an LGBT nightclub for an evening with trans* people, their friends and admirers(!) is not the place to go to be perceived as a woman. It’s the place to go to be perceived as a bloke in a dress. Treated nicely and respectfully no doubt, pampered indeed, but very definitely marking myself out as not-quite-female. It’s the same mindset that back when I was at the TransLiving weekend in Eastbourne last October, lead Andrea, Ruth and I to head for the pub rather than sit in a trans*-only nightclub. I am happy to have trans* friends, indeed my very closest friend is another trans woman, but I don’t want to live in a trans* ghetto. It’s a closet that I don’t need to be in. Be in as few closets as possible but as many as necessary. This one isn’t necessary for me. Outside in the real world, from time to time I will get the feeling that I’m either passing, flying under the radar, or sitting in the “is she or isn’t she” zone. Not always, but enough. Once inside that venue, there will be zero possibility of that. Reason enough to stay away.
So, support groups, eh? In my limited experience, if you’re lucky, you’ll find a couple of people who are on your wavelength. If you’re unlucky, you’ll walk in, not really click with anyone, and walk out again. But you could be lucky. So give it a try. You might just find a friend. And if you don’t , try another one.
Of course there is another support group that is absolutely invaluable for me. It’s you. The WordPress trans* blogging community. Now you people really are a support network.