Tied up in knots

Sheffield_Feb_19I have acquired a new role at work. It’s a more senior role but it carries with it a crushing workload. I’m a professor, and like many academics, I have a deep commitment to my work, my discipline and my Department. My Department has been through difficult times and it seemed the right thing from many perspectives to accept this role, but the consequent increase in my workload has been difficult to bear. I’m very efficient, have enormous stamina and manage with less sleep than I ought to get. In those respects, I’m very well suited to my new role. However, what I am struggling to cope with is a complete collapse of time to express my feminine self.

To anybody who doesn’t have gender dysphoria, this is probably very hard to understand. It goes far beyond the surrender of a leisure pursuit. I have very little time to play the guitar, for example, and when I eventually stop working I’m simply too tired to play. That’s a shame, and something I resolve to put right, for a number of reasons: music is a fabulous form of relaxation, because to play an intrument requires immersion in the notes to be played and their translation into the actions of hands and fingers – which of necessity excludes all thoughts of the day’s other activities; and because it brings an emotional catharsis – a connection with deep-rooted feelings that are suppressed during the working day.

But the denial of opportunities to connect with my feminine self goes very much deeper. The way that I picture myself is like a ball of wool, knotted and tangled; everyday life is a deep-seated struggle to reconcile the external masculine presentation of my self with an inner sense of femininity that seems incommensurate with the expectations of all those around me. Days away from my masculine role have an importance that goes beyond taking a day off, or the pleasure of indulging a favourite pastime; they provide opportunities to untangle the knots, and bring a sense of inner harmony that for most of the time is absent.

Missing these days brings a darkness that is difficult to deal with. For the past few months, opportunities to be myself, unfettered, have been so limited that it has driven me back to a place that I thought I had escaped from some years ago. Last May I wrote about the experience of internalised transphobia – a state of mind in which one starts to despise oneself for being trans. In all the years that I tried to “cure” myself of being trans, it was this inward-looking attitude, seeking blame in myself for what was entirely outwith my control, that was the most destructive. To deal with the incapacity to be myself, I am distressed to find that a mechanism has been triggered – uncopnsciously – that causes me to despise femininity and the desire to be feminine.

Recently I have had a number of opportunities to be my feminine self again. It has been a shock to discover how unsettling this has been. An opportunity is identified; plans are made. But as the time draws near, my conscious brain is beset by familiar and unwantedf thoughts: do you really need to do this? why not spend the evening at home with a glass of wine? why is a successful, middle-aged, middle-class man  desperate to go out looking like a woman? For a few hours I’m all at sea. The accusations point inward from myself. And yet, deep down, I know who I am. It is as though a demon sits on my shoulder screaming accusations. Until the moment the first dab of make-up is applied I am in turmoil.

But once I surrender to the process, it is as though fresh air is wafting through a stuffy room; on a humid summer night, the windows are thrown open and the cool crispness sweeps away the stuffiness. Looking into the mirror, an unfamiliar feminine face returns my gaze. She looks at the same time familiar and yet strange. She is me and she is not me; she is female and yet she is trans and underneath it all masculine. For a moment the demon whispers words wreathed in smoke. But before I know it, I’m on the bus; in the restaurant; eating dinner. I’m me. All is well with the world. I feel the knots untangling; the tightly coiled, interwoven strands of consciousness soften and separate; like a woman brushing her hair, I shake the fibres of my self and they blow free in the cool evening air.

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