I recall an incident as an 18-year-old when my sister phoned me at home to pick her up from the pub. It was a Sunday evening so it wasn’t late and I was happy to keep my end of a deal we’d made to give each other a lift when we needed it. The pub was nearby so I didn’t bother getting changed into more sophisticated attire as I was only going to resume my spot in front of the television when I returned 20 minutes later.
What she failed to tell me was that I wasn’t going to be bringing her home, I would be dropping her and three male friends to another venue. Suddenly my oversized t-shirt, stripy leggings and knee-high uggboats didn’t seem like such a good idea after all. If I thought I could hide behind the steering wheel I was sadly mistaken, my outfit hadn’t gone unnoticed. When she rang again a few hours later for another lift for her and her friends I decided to leave my clothing unchanged. I thought it was too late to redeem myself anyway and I was at risk of appearing superficial.
Although I laugh every time I think about that situation, superficial is what I feel now as I read those words and think about my friend Angela who sat in her car terrified to reveal herself as a transgender person in public for the first time. This wasn’t simply a bloke stepping out in a frock, it was her introduction to the world as the person she always knew she was. Despite decades of rehearsing and mastering her female identity and living as a woman in the privacy of her own home, it still felt too soon to bring her into the public domain. Fortunately Angela’s first outing went smoothly, though it came after years of ridicule and inner turmoil.
I worked with Angela for three years, it was probably not until halfway through this tenure that I really came to know her. It’s not everyday that you come across a transgender person so I wasn’t exactly sure how things would be. When I saw the ease with who she was I realised that she just wanted to be treated as though she had always been a woman. I loved that she would refer to herself as an ‘old girl’ or if she was being really harsh on herself, a ‘bitch’.
It’s not hard to imagine how difficult life would be finding yourself with a female mind in a male body. It took me some time to summon up the courage to ask Angela if she was willing to speak about it. I needn’t have worried. Angela was so open to the opportunity to share her experiences she was already preparing her own account of them.
On the day we met I wasn’t only keen to hear about her experiences and take on life, this was the first time we had met away from our workplace so I was interested to see how people reacted to her in public. Angela explained to me that she had used people’s reactions to her over the years to gauge how her transformation into a woman was going.
Hormonal treatment had led to muscle loss and subsequently a change in gait. But she had also needed to perfect the female walking style, taking smaller steps while walking in a straight line. I was quite surprised that on this occasion, people didn’t really seem to notice Angela as a transgender person, a loud round of applause played in my head – her ultimate outcome had been achieved.
Walking wasn’t the extent of it, her facial expressions had also needed to be refined. I imagined her sitting in front of a mirror practicing raising her eyebrows and pursing her lips all the while as she developed the pitch of her voice.
Being true to herself had paid off. Gone were the days of hiding under the cover of darkness as she nicked outside for a cigarette at night, taking care not to be discovered dressed as a woman by sitting between the bushes.
Doctors had marveled at her progress as she transformed into a woman. The transition defied medical explanation as her eyes became more rounded and cheekbones higher over the course of 18 months. It could only be put down to this being her true self.
If medicine was ready to make the change and accept her situation, society was not so obliging. Although there may have been a shift in thinking and acceptance of homosexual people, from Angela’s perspective, transgender people were still viewed as ‘freaks’.
Legal requirements to change from a man to a woman meant hours poring over paperwork and telephone calls which often led to frustration and despair. So there was immense jubilation when she finally decided to apply for a passport and the process was met with relative ease. So straightforward was the process she questioned why.
According to the voice at the other end of the phone, it had become apparent that transgender people should be recognised as the sex they had changed to on their passport and this could be done without great rigmarole.
Angela’s passport did not only represent a means to travel abroad freely, her country recognised her as a woman – another great mission accomplished.