By any other name

By any other nameIt was two weeks ago, late Friday afternoon and I was just putting the finishing touches on a spreadsheet or some such when my phone buzzed angrily. I don’t know why I hate the sound of my phone no matter what the ringtone is. I guess I just don’t look forward to phone calls. “Ally” it announced in bright white letters. I’d better take this.

“Hi Ally” I said in my most cheerful voice.

“Hi” the voice on the other end was quiet, small and unassuming. The voice of a person who is used to slouching just a little to avoid looking conspicuously tall. The voice of someone used to being in the background, trying not to rock the boat, used to barely being seen.

“I got a letter from my father”

My heart sank. I snuck into the nearest meeting room and sat down. This was a sit-down kind of conversation. “I’m so sorry to hear that… uh… well, I guess I’m sorry to hear that because I assume it’s bad but it may not be bad, right?”

“It’s bad… I’m either his son or I must leave the family”

My heart leapt and sank again “yeah… that’s… pretty bad”

She has received a letter from her father pretty much rejecting her in no uncertain terms.

That’s the first time I’ve used a pronoun to describe Ally in this post. What gender did you assume Ally was? Does it matter that she’s a girl now, or that she was born a guy?

You see, Ally could be short for “Alice” or “Alex”. I met Ally as Alex. A rather awkward 20-something guy who occasionally liked to wear a dress. I now know her as Alice: a 20-something woman growing in confidence every day.

I am extremely sensitive to pronouns. I was one of the first people who started insisting on using “her” and “she” to refer to Ally, even though she said she “didn’t mind” when people “got it wrong”. To be honest, it’s not easy to remember to do it after you’ve known someone as a guy for so long. It still feels a little odd sometimes, but I believe it’s important, very important, possibly even life-changing.

I encouraged her to make the step, to fully transition to a woman, challenging her assumed limitations in my own casual way. I further encouraged her to come out to her parents, to write them a letter, to tell them the truth, the whole truth.

Because as we all know the truth hurts, the truth is dangerous and scary, but the truth will set you free.

The truth is that Ally was born male in every way, except for the heart and mind. As a child she asked her mother “so, when do I become a girl?” from the tender age of 12, she would wear dresses when no one was looking. The truth is she wasn’t always very good at it. I have vivid memories seeing her in a very small skirt and cringing.

It didn’t work. Not back then.

And it doesn’t work for many transgendered people.

Do you think that transgendered person walking down K-road with her makeup all on crooked and her wig awry does that because she wants to look silly? I don’t think so. No one really wants to look silly. Not most of us anyway. It’s a need, a desperate need to be a woman: to manifest that internal change to the rest of the world as best they can, but many can’t.

It starts inside, and that’s where it started for Ally. Only 2 years ago I saw a massive shift in her outlook when she realised that it didn’t matter how she looked. What mattered was who she was, and that was all about who she was on the inside and nothing more. Paradoxically, once she had made the internal decision, the external came easier, because she didn’t need to try so hard. When you truly are a woman on the inside, you can be a woman in slacks and a tee shirt.

Fuelled by a swell of support from people like me, and a growing desire to be honest with her family, she “came out” to them , pretty much the same way I did: in person, with a letter.

Only difference is: I was accepted.

I feel like such a charlatan: filling her mind with positive stories. Encouraging her with thoughts of unconditional love, acceptance and support, those things I now take for granted from my family. Sure, there have been times when I have felt alienated from my family, times when I have felt isolated, disconnected, misunderstood, times when I have been angry or sad, but never in my life have I ever felt unloved.

This was Ally’s cross today, her impossible burden: the prospect of loss of the unconditional love from her parents. I got off the phone and spoke to my boss Irene.

“You seem angry, Stephen…”

Angry? Yes, I suppose I was. My voice broke with barely controlled emotion and my hands shook. How could anyone reject their own child? Don’t even the most despised people love their own children?

“Look, I’m sorry, I have to go, she needs to talk”

I picked her up and we drove around to my favourite viewpoint on Davenport. As we watched the city twinkle like distant stars, she poured out anger, frustration, anxiety, sadness. I felt useless. I still do. They say that one of the hardest things is to watch someone suffer and know you are powerless to help them. This is something only she can endure, and something she must live with, terribly alone.

We stopped off at a nice restaurant for dinner , it dawned on me, as we sat down at a table with a single rose in the vase that today was valentine’s day.

“I’ve never had a proper valentine’s day” she said absently

“Me neither” I reflected.

We sat and talked and I wondered if anyone was curious about our genders. Or whether anyone cared.

“You know” I said, trying to sound profound. “this rose is beautiful because of its imperfections, not in spite of them. It’s beautiful and flawed, just as we are beautiful and flawed, just as life is”

She took the rose home with her. It now symbolises something for us both: the fragility and strength that comes from a resolution.

“You know, the worst case scenario happened to me today, and I’m still here.” Ally’s voice broke with determination.

It’s a start, by any other name.