• Stephanie Ashton

One Way Or Another

Blondie, Parallel Lines, 1978


Introduction


This is the second part of my blog on Coming Out. In part one, I provided a summary of the kindest guidance available from reliable support groups online. This blog will now explore my lived experience and reflections on some of that guidance.


Before I proceed, some caveats. This blog is about my experience of Coming Out as a male to female transgender person. For that reason, it may be of limited value to anyone else in the LGBTQ+ spectrum. This blog is also United Kingdom centric so the viewpoints expressed, and personal actions taken may not translate or apply in other countries or cultures.


It is not my intention to inspire or encourage anyone to do anything that may not be right for their own personal situation. Coming Out and opting to transition can be a wonderful self-affirming life event but it can also be stressful and have far reaching consequences. I share my experience purely in the hope of helping those considering taking this big step to understand the possible issues that may be encountered. I also hope that this blog will help allies to understand and better support us moving forward.


Coming Out…like what the hell?


As I sit down to write this blog my cat is staring at me with an expressions that says “why type all that nonsense when you could be feeding me chicken?” Well, I thought it was necessary for someone who is transgender to write about their lived experience. The reason being that I recently read with some amusement the well intended but somewhat soft touch guidance on Coming Out that is available on several transgender support websites. The guidance on these sites is kept simple and concise which is great for getting the message out. However, it is all written in such understanding and encouraging terms. Whilst this might be appropriate for transgender people within the circle of privileged and polite liberal society, it is certainly not reflective of the gritty realities of Coming Out anywhere else in the United Kingdom.


I now feel bad as I do not want to be negative towards well-intentioned organisations. I am a big supporter and deeply respectful of the great work done by the likes of Stonewall and I have little doubt they are committed and working hard to improve our rights. However, I cannot help feeling it would better assist people thinking about coming out if the guidance was a bit more real, a bit more Irvine Welsh, you know? A prime example being that it is useful to know in advance that the public at large see no requirement to follow any social norms whatsoever when talking to you. When confronted with a transgender person in a nightclub at 1am a young drunken lad well may ask without hesitation “have you had your knackers off yet?”


The girls on a recent night out in Glasgow

So, with no further ado let us proceed and explore the murky depths of coming out as encountered by yours truly.


Self-Acceptance


In the previous blog I presented how coming out as a transgender person can be a frightening experience and that seeking the support of a counsellor or therapist can help. This remains good advice however, the challenge that people face when coming out as transgender is not as simple as seeing a therapist to understand if you are 1 or 0. If only life were so simple.


The problem is that our world was built on a foundation of men and women as the only recognised genders. Nothing else. Yes, there are a handful of cultures in the history of time that did/do recognise third sexes and the like. However, these are minority cultures in the grand scheme of world events and have only survived by virtue of having remained outside the reach of aggressive ideologies and dogma.


As a result, from birth until reading this blog you will have been bombarded with comments, writing, books, films, and social media that re-enforce the stereotypes of what it is to be a man or a woman. Our social circles, including family and friends, often act to re-enforce these stereotypes and in previous generations believed it was only right to abuse, criticise, or express prejudice towards those who chose not to comply with the established norms. It was all part of their duty to help keep you on track to becoming a woman or man, whatever their view of that meant.


So, the reality is that if you fall off the pedestal of the defined gender role you were assigned at birth, it is possible to end up lost in undefined non-binary free space. What do I mean? Well, there are no established norms whatsoever for what it means to be non-binary or transgender. As a result, if you are determined to try and understand yourself and find answers then you need to try and figure them out for yourself, with support from the relatively small number of people in society who understand what these terms even mean.


No problems knowing where I fit in. Point a camera at me and I automatically pose

Indeed, if you follow the likes of myself into the non-binary space then you are now in uncharted territory. Philosophers have not spent centuries thinking through what it means to be non-binary and there is no rulebook for how we should live. Friends, family, and colleagues at work will not be able to advise or re-enforce your new stereotype because there isn’t one. Now that you have left the simplicity of being either a man and woman, there is no definition of how you should think, how you should present, or who you should be attracted too.


The story gets better so stick with me. It is not only society at large that does not understand the maddingly vast non-binary and transgender landscape; many non-binary and transgender people don’t understand it either. And this is a problem for many people trying to find self-acceptance if they are determined to find answers to who and what they are. I have known many transgender people who have starred into the non-binary maelstrom of madness and been left permanently befuddled.


The purpose of this blog was to focus on my lived experience so how did I find my self acceptance? Well, it was easy for myself because I have a very clear mindset. I can honestly say that I have never felt so much as frightened or anxious about who I am or how other people may perceive me. Not when I went out dressed for the first time, not when meeting new people, not in crowded settings, and not even coming out at work. And why is that?


Well, the truth is quite simple and comes in three parts:

  • I genuinely believe I am female so have it easier because I align to one of the two historically recognised genders, and everyone knows what to expect

  • I believe it is futile to seek answers to why we are the way we are. It is on a par with trying to understand the meaning of life. Indeed, I consider it dangerous to become obsessed with your own mental landscape and a waste of mental energy.

  • I accept the way I am without the need for justification. I simply don’t care why I am transgender or whatever reasons people assign to it.


As a result of this absolute conviction and clarity of mind I have never seen a councillor or a therapist regarding being transgender. Why would I? I have no doubts about who and what I am and simply don’t care where I sit on any gender spectrum. Amusingly, when I attended the Gender Identity Clinic (GIC) appointment to be assessed for gender dysphoria I regarded it as a waste of my time. Why did I need to prove the obvious? I arrived at the appointment with a written script and duly informed the doctor that he must provide me with the required diagnosis so that I could proceed with my life.


For the same reason I find it deeply amusing when I meet new people and they feel the need to tell me to be out and proud. In the first instance, this strikes me as more than curious given that I must already be out in public to have met them. It is also bizarre that they believe my confidence must be so low that what I really need at 11pm in a nightclub is an affirming pep talk from a drunken stranger. No, I have never had any issues with self-acceptance and the pep talks are not required, thank you.

So, in summary, I am fortuitous that I have a clear mindset that made self acceptance easy. Counsellors and therapists have a role for others who have a desperate need to understand themselves, but it was simply not a requirement for myself. Forces of nature require neither guidance nor understanding.


Find Support


The previous blog on Coming Out provided ideas for finding support and included a list of excellent real world support groups. But you know, from my own experience I found transgender support groups to be hit and miss. What do I mean?


The people who set-up and run gender support groups are undoubtedly well-intentioned people who aspire to help others in society. I am not suggesting anything to the contrary and bless them for being on the side of the angels. However, in my experience if the groups were run without the direct support of either a non-binary or transgender leader, then the leaders often lacked essential knowledge and understanding to adequately guide or inform people like myself on the issues we may face.


I have encountered a small number of support groups that were led by cis gender woman only. These groups seemed to focus primarily on dressing and etiquette so were only really of value to inexperienced crossdressers. Apart from the obvious nastiness of some of these groups, it was an eye opener that some of the people running them went out of their way to avoid getting involved in any real transgender issues. A group led by woman with no care or interest in the health or wellbeing of its clientele is one to avoid.


It is lovely to meet new people at support groups. This support group is called Celebrity Squares. But where is Ali?

My other general issue with support groups was that they tended to focus on people’s original gender and treated their activities in the other gender as some sort of part time hobby. This may well be the case for crossdressers, but it was certainly not the case for myself. As a result, I found the whole experience utterly bizarre. Indeed, I seem to recall thinking at one group I attended that the leader treated the clientele in a manner befitting patients on the ward of a mental asylum.


Then we come onto the clientele of these support groups, and I inhale deeply at the thought of what I have observed. The kindest way to describe the participants I encountered is that they are a colourful array of unique people. Many will be nice and decent people, but no group is complete without a minority of sex pests and at least one person who is madder than a box of frogs. It is therefore important to understand if the people you meet at these groups are on your wavelength before getting too friendly with them.


It should therefore come as no surprise that support groups are not my cup of tea. They serve a useful purpose for those who are new to this life, feel lonely, or just want to set up a network of friends to have some fun. However, being lonely and vulnerable have never been labels assigned to yours truly. I am a disco bitch baby! Members of the public hand me shots in Glasgow pubs as they shout in my face “if you are hot, you get a shot!” It’s true. Ask Kate Bush, she was with me at the time.


Holly Willoughby and Kate Bush. From the drunken conversation with our new friend the only thing I understood was our new names and the catch phrase "If you are hot you get a shot!"

In the previous blog I also talked about the option of finding support from other transgender people. Those that know me better will have read into my thinly veiled negativity that I am not an advocate of this approach. And why is that?


Well, the answer is quite simple. Savvy people rarely seek advice and when they do it is only from well-balanced, proven, and trusted people; not from some random person just because they belong to a given group of people. Nowhere is this more true than in the transgender community. Just because someone is non-binary or transgender it does not necessarily mean they are knowledgeable, or kind for matter. Indeed, if you ask people from this community for advice it is almost always tinted with some degree of opinion, often as a result of having struggled through the same challenges. I would even go so far as to say that even if someone has transitioned it does not mean they have any depth of knowledge or experience beyond the single data point that is themselves.


As a result, I can count on one hand the number of transgender people from whom I would seek advice and take counsel. It is my experience that many transgender people are fixated on their own condition and lack a well-balanced view of life, meaning that I could never trust their views. I have also known many transgenders who are lovely people on a night out but are flighty; meaning that they are permanently up to high-do and blowing on the winds of their own change and mini crisis.


The group of transgender people that just outright annoy me are the self-appointed experts on all matter’s transgender. I know more than a few in this category and their ideas need to be considered with caution because whilst they may have some knowledge, it is often adrift in a sea of self-opinionated jetsam and emotional flotsam. Never has one community had so many medical and phycology experts that have neither qualification nor sufficient experience to back up their views. It was with black humour that I recently joked to a good friend that I am in danger of becoming a TERT, or a Trans-Exclusionary Radical Transgender person ;D


So, summarising this section, support groups and other transgender people have a valid role when trying to come out and progress with your new life. However, from my own experience both need to be approached carefully to ensure that they are helping rather than hindering your progress towards a happy and successful life.


On my way to see a friend I had not seen in a long time and tell them about Stephanie :D

Family and Friends


Am I really going to delve into the murky waters of coming out to family and friends? I have tried to put off writing this section and thought I was doing quite well. Okay, I will tell you about my experiences, but you are not going to like it. Hand me the pain killers and I will give it a go.

Female partners

So, my first experiences of coming out were to cis gender females with whom I was having a relationship. Whilst attracted to females over the early part of my adulthood I had started to grasp the concept that this dressing business was not going away. So, for some reason that is completely lost to me now, it seemed logical and only right that the first person I should inform about my true nature was the person closest to me - my female partner. I was wrong. More than once.


The first girlfriend with whom I ever shared my big secret was someone who was super down with the gays. We spent a lot of time in the company of gays and lesbians around Manchester in the late 90’s and it all seemed to be getting quite relaxed in terms of how people identified inside their relationships. However, when I told my (ex) girlfriend that I thought I might be transgender she immediately turned on me stating that she would not have “that sort of thing” in her relationships. In another example, my last proper girlfriend on being told my big secret immediately diagnosed me as mentally ill and pronounced “what on earth will I tell my mother?”


Interestingly I had never planned to have a relationship with her mother, so I am not sure where exactly she came into the equation. Additionally, we have also now learned that girlfriends are the other talented group of people who have the capability to spontaneously make a medical diagnosis with neither the need of qualifications nor training. But on a serious note, my experience of coming out to female partners is not great and if asked honestly, I think there is a very low probability of a true intimate relationship lasting long term if one person comes out as wanting to change gender.


I am convinced that what really upset my last (ex) girlfriend was that I did being her better than she did

Reflecting on those experiences for my own learning, I have often wondered if younger-me could have handled those situations better. Undoubtedly the answer is yes. But you know, I cannot carry any emotional baggage for these outcomes because in both situations I was misled. Indeed, I was led like a lamb to the kebab shop. In both cases theses (ex) girlfriends had led me to think that coming out was cool but then had turned on me when I had taken that step and been honest with them. Younger and less experienced me had made the mistake of misinterpreting their virtue signalling for a statement of their genuine values and principles.


Family

Now my apologies if this all sounds like a bit of a horror story but this is the truth of what happened. This is my lived experienced. So, let’s move onto family and friends next.


By the stage I decided to come out to my family I had decided that I was transgender and needed to transition. Before the conversation I dutifully read up and prepared myself for the discussion. Arriving at the family house as Stephanie, I told them I had dressed for years, thought of myself as a woman and intended to transition. I told them my adopted name and my forward plan. I did not leave any room for course correction or being cross examined. Sounds firm right? I was. Confidence and conviction are vitally important if you are going to turn up at your parent’s home dressed as the opposite sex and try to convince them that you plan to stay that way.


So, what reaction did I receive? Well, on the day I came out to my parents a friend asked me that evening how it had gone to which I simply remarked “I told them. It went badly. So, I left and went for lunch.” And that is factually correct because the reception was so bad, I simply walked out and had a nice lunch instead.

The truth is that I had always suspected that the initial reaction would be awful, given that my family are all deeply conservative in nature bordering on Presbyterian in their desire for misery. So, I had already decided to share my big news and then back-off to let everyone think things over and not continue to the point where something might be said that would be difficult to take back later.


Its a good idea to dress appropriately if you plan to come out dressed. But this is too far okay?

Now, I am not sharing horror stories to put anyone off proceeding with coming out. However, these are the realities of life for some of us, a reality which the nice encouraging guidance on the internet does not share. The other important point that they fail to share is this: it is important to PROTECT YOURSELF and know when to walk away. After all, if you have reached the stage of coming out then your mental state is most likely quite fragile and receiving negative inputs from those closest is simply not useful. Therefore, in planning the coming out message, also set boundaries for what you deem as appropriate behaviour and if they are exceeded then walk away and let things cool down.


On the positive side, relationships with some members of my family have improved in the intervening years. This is mainly from having been able to demonstrate that I can maintain a happy and relatively normal life. I am not going to tell you that they have become the most supportive unit ever, because they are not. However, as I shared in the first blog, if you prepare properly and present your message in a consistent fashion then people will eventually accept the truth even if they never like it.


Friends

Some dear readers will at this stage be wondering how I managed cope with so much negativity coming towards me over the years. Well fear not, because here come friends to the rescue.


As I had been going out dressed for years prior to Coming Out I had already built up an understanding circle of friends in the LGBTQ+ space. It was not so much a case of coming out, but finally admitting the obvious truth. Naturally, this group of friends is my main stay of support and without them I would be much worse off in life. I love you all!


The friends who matter the most are just obvious in life. You know them right from first meeting

Beyond that immediate circle of friends, I did have some long-standing friends whom I had not shared my lifestyle choices but on deciding to transition, took this course of action:

  • I made the effort to see in person all my important lifelong friends and told them the truth. Most of these people reacted positively, and I attribute this to the fact that they are decent people who only care about other people’s health and happiness.

  • There were some friends who I genuinely liked but with whom I simply saw no future in terms of having anything in common / not ending up in conflict with their cultural or religious views. With this group I never pushed Coming Out but did tell them if they contacted me.

  • There were some friends who I had not seen in a long time because there was little effort being made on either side, mainly because they were associated with sports or hobbies in which I no longer have much (if any) interest. I never made any communication to people in this group and in same cases did not respond if I thought there was no future in the friendship.


I have no big point to make about Coming Out to friends other than to say, if someone is genuinely your friend, then they should contribute to the happiness of your life overall. If they are negative or hostile when you come out, then it may be appropriate to give them some time to see if they can come around. However, if supposed friends never accept the change, gossip about you in an unkind way or remain hostile then they’re not worth being in your life. You are not in a needy position because you are transgender and as with all friendships, never put up with people who abuse you or make you feel bad.


Work


In truth, I really should have read the small print on Coming Out in more detail. Now you may ask what issue I take with this common LGBTQ+ term for revealing one’s true self? Well, I feel like I have been lied too about the whole Coming Out business. And what is most upsetting is that the person who misled me was myself. Fabulous Stephanie – my heroine.


For reasons that cannot be explained I got this notion in my head that Coming Out was like a project deliverable, it was something I would do and then move onto my next objective. I would bake that cake, put it in the larder for tea with the vicar’s wife, and go dress shopping safe in the knowledge that all was well. This is not the case. Not the case at all.


For starters, the term Coming Out in its most literal grammatical sense is not in the future definitive tense. It is a term in the present tense without any conditional end state. This means logically that it has unknown outcomes. But this truth did not dawn on me until some time this year when the people in my life continued to ask the same questions about being transgender, again and again. Finally, the grim reality became apparent; this Coming Out business is a never-ending story. A never-ending story, which for comedy value, is being blown on the winds of societal opinion.


Hard at work. I was! Honestly!

It is only fair to admit that in the beginning of my journey, I was all spirited and excited to educate everyone about what it was to be transgender, especially in the workplace as my employer does an excellent job at signalling its support for LGBTQ+. However, as with all things in life this feeling of excitement shortly gave way to a sense of duty, before slipping into a state of utter tedium. Finally, I reached the point where I was just outright annoyed when asked the same question for the umpteenth time by the same silly person. And nowhere is this experience more turgid than in the workplace. And why is that?


From my viewpoint I can see that being transgender is still regarded are unusual in modern day society. As a result, there is a real danger that being transgender becomes your one defining characteristic in the eyes of everyone you meet. It would not matter if you had previously been an Olympic athlete, climbed Everest, Sailed the Atlantic single-handed, or swam the English channel. No. Because once you Come Out as transgender suddenly it is the one uber special and overriding feature about you. And nowhere is this worse than in a big corporation that is desperate to sell how open it is to LGBTQ+.


In response to this issue, I now shutdown any conversation about my gender and remind people politely that whilst I am transgender it is not all I am. And that is important for another reason; to prevent getting washed away on a wave of false signalling.


Indeed, modern day organisations are receiving streams of data and input of the future employment market and all indicators are that good employers in the future will need to be open to a workforce that may include people from right across the LGBTQ+ spectrum.

However, we are not there yet and what I have experienced is a lot of signalling of support and wanting your face on the cover of this or that promotion, but no genuine action to provide support to individuals in the organisation in a structured way. LGBTQ+ people are a handy sales pitch but a minority that is readily ignored. As a result, I left my employers LGBTQ+ pride group because of what I perceived to be false signalling plus, it stopped me from attracting any more unwanted attention to the fact that I am transgender.


I was working I promise. The sunglasses? Oh er....

Now that might all sound a bit negative but it is important to maintain a balanced view and I do that rather well. Yes, there are difficulties being transgender in the workplace but at least I have that option to go to work as myself, which many other transgender people do not in other parts of the world. And am I really different to any other minority that is abused by a British employment system that could not care a less about what happens to the individual? Not really. So overall, I feel lucky to have the opportunities I do even if on low days it is easy to get annoyed when someone says “Oh how are you getting on? What’s it like being transgender? I bet you always knew. Enjoying being one of the girls now? blah blah blah.”


Doctors, Police, and other Authorities


In terms of Coming Out to authorities in the United Kingdom I have never had any problems when dealing with any individual face to face. Everyone has always been kind and respectful and that has been brilliant. However, the processes for changing name and identity on official documents in Scotland is a nightmare of epic proportion, mainly because it is so slow and unclear how to navigate the system that insists on being different from the rest of the United Kingdom.


On searching the UK GOV website to learn how to officially change gender you are informed that you need to visit a different site for Scotland. The link to the Scottish GOV site then handily takes you to a page that tells you absolutely nothing about changing gender. The second big problem I discovered was that the guidance online for updating the gender on a driving licence requires a notary public to sign your documents. However, after the Covid outbreak this means finding a solicitor because there are no Justice of the Peace services available in the North of Scotland. I have been informed by a solicitor friend that there is in fact no intention to resume this service outside of Edinburgh or Glasgow which is a big “get it up ye” from the SNP who only care about maintaining services for their own voters. Thanks very much Nicola.


The good news is that I did manage to change my gender and name officially. If anyone is really interested in how I achieved this miracle in a country with no functioning services, then I can advise if you write to me because it is a magic trick that I am not sure Paul Daniels could have figured out.


For my next trick I will try to look cute. Nearly worked...

Final Remarks


In this blog I shared the good, the bad and the downright bizarre experiences I have had Coming Out. I am super happy with my life right now but make no mistake that this life defining event is a minefield of epic proportion and in that respect, was no different for myself. If you are proceeding down the same path, then take good care of yourself and think carefully about how you will approach each different group of people. As I did, protect yourself from negativity and do not get upset if the initial reaction from important people in your life is not a positive one. Sometimes people just need time to come to terms with new ideas and ways of living. Ultimately, if people love you, then they will stand by you because love always wins in the end.


The prevailing views of society play a strong part in dictating how future generations of non-binary and transgender people will be received. If you are reading this blog from the position of being an ally then please speak up and support us when it is appropriate, and you have a safe platform to do so. There is only one of me to every other 9,999 people in society so if success for the non-binary and transgender community is dependent on only those in the minority then we will never achieve a tolerant and respectful country. Please speak up when you can and be confident knowing it all helps to make a kinder society for all.

Steffie

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