M: Hello I’m Michelle, I live in Brighton, I heard about the Brighton Transformed project and I was quite interested in, in what was going on with it, I think there’s quite a community in Brighton, so wanted to be part of the history of [it].
INT: Do you work in Brighton?
M: Yeah I’m currently working for an employer in Brighton, I’ve lived in Brighton for roundabout 20 years nearly, so that shows my age, because I moved here after university, so yeah I’m forty [laughs], last year I was forty and that was a big kind of step in my life because around about a year or so ago I faced lots of changes in my life, particularly around gender, so this is something that I’ve been going through my whole life really and only really could come to terms with it last year.
INT: So what were your circumstances just prior to this decision?
M: I’d actually settled down, so I’d lived in Brighton for twenty years but in a relationship and I’d eventually married and had children, and then, last year I kind of found myself sort of questioning what was going on in my head, you know.
INT: is that the first time you’d questioned?
M: Not at all, I mean when I was a child, teenaged, and certain points in my life, I’ve had sort of feelings of, of I guess what I now know is sort of gender dysphoria, but at the time it felt like a bit of an unbalance, so I think when I was a child, my first recollection was very young, you know just being in a social setting with schools or nurseries, and feeling like I should be part of the girls’ group. And there was a big deal about, you know. dancing around in a ring with all the boys, because I was born a boy, and I got very upset and I didn’t want to, and I wanted to be a princess and I wanted to dance around with all the girls, and they let me which was such a wonderful feeling.
INT: Did that have consequences?
M: Um! [laughs] There were some boys, I remember some of the boys being really surprised, some of my friends saying why would you want to be a princess? And I went very very quiet at a young age. And then I remember there was some kind of play at the nursery and one of the parts was playing a caterpillar, so I guess looking back it was probably the Hungry Caterpillar, which is a great story, and what I liked is that at the end the caterpillar became a butterfly, in a cocoon, and they were looking for who was going to be the butterfly and I put my hand up and everyone said “urggh” [gasps] that’s – that’s strange, you’re actually volunteering, because I never said a word to anyone at school, I was so quiet, and that was the first kind of feeling really that you know there’s something about metamorphosis or changing and something around girls and boys that I couldn’t quite grasp. So that was quite a young age and then I think throughout my life I’ve had kind of issues with gender and it got more and more.
INT: What brought it to a head?
M: I think I just was very in denial really and trying to repress the whole thing, because I cared about my family and my friends so much I really didn’t want them to have to face it with me. But I kind of knew in the back of my head I had to do something. The feeling of being male and being a father, while I’m delighted that I’ve had a family and the things that have happened to me and even getting married was wonderful, the whole thing about being male I couldn’t relate to, and I did a very very good job I think of putting it on, and I think I convinced everyone, but in the end I just felt like I was a woman, or something that wasn’t male, but I couldn’t work out what.
INT: So it was nothing specifically? But you were living in Brighton? Lots of trans people around, I guess more than anywhere else.
M: Yeah and I’d met some cross-dressing people and some people that were kind of ambiguous and androgynous and things, and I always thought I was very pro androgyny, and I was very pro feminism, and very sort of pro queer and lots of things that weren’t typically heterosexual male orientated things, and yet I couldn’t grasp my sexuality because I didn’t know if I was gay or not, and I didn’t think I was, so the whole thing was very puzzling in my mind. I’d never really understood transgender and never really sort of thought I would be transgender but I started feeling very much like I needed to wake up. I mean there was just certain things like the cross dressing that was going on with me.
INT: So you were cross-dressing?
M: Yeah and it was getting quite difficult to repress that.
INT: Did your partner know?
M: Yes she knew, and I think we were both complicit in trying to hide it in some way. I felt it was best for my family that they didn’t know, my close family. And yet my friends in Brighton who are quite open minded sort of all knew, and they’d seen me out and and my partner at the time, you know she knew, but she was not very open about it; I think we both thought it was best to keep it quiet. And especially when children are involved.
INT: You kept it quiet for the children? And then something, something presumably induced you to make that jump?
M: I just looked at myself honestly. I even looked in the mirror and talked to myself [laughs], and I looked in my wardrobe and I saw maybe a few items of male clothing but mostly female. And I looked up at the sky, and I looked at the stars, and said “what am I, someone tell me”, and at that moment I saw a shooting star go past, incredible!
INT: You’re laughing about it now, but it’s a very powerful image.
M: Yeah, and I don’t know how much of that was subconsciously I wanted to do something. People talk about the choice, and there isn’t a definite moment of me choosing, there was just a waking up.
INT: So what was your first avenue of doing something about it?
M: My first avenue was actually I attended The Clare Project in Brighton, because I felt that I needed to talk to someone, and find someone like me just to get my head around it. But I was very wary about going because I didn’t want to get influenced in any way, I wanted it to be my journey, and to work out myself exactly what’s going on. And I turned up, I think I tried to go many years before but, but sort of avoided it – because I was in denial and I wanted to repress the whole thing. But this time I went, and I went in, and I met some lovely people, and immediately felt there’s something here, you know there’s something – I’m definitely not imaging this, and it started to make sense. And talking with people struck such a chord with me, talking with people about what they’ve been through and how they felt and I was like – snap, I get it, that’s exactly right. So I didn’t feel like I was influenced by anyone but I felt it had really helped me to cement in my head what was going on with my gender dysphoria I think. And now I had a word for it. And I went to the doctor and explained the depression that I had and also that I felt I had gender dysphoria probably. And so that was now on a path through the medical system.
INT: How did your doctor respond?
M: He said, “I think you’re doing the right thing to sort this out.” He said “have you thought about your family?” and I said well “every day!” Completely! It’s the thing that was so difficult, and it was such a huge thing to, to do, and yet I was in this limbo of deciding whether to keep on trying to repress for other people’s benefit – supposed benefit – or to be real and true to myself and for my family to find out exactly who I was, you know. And I actually went back to see my family.
INT: Which ones?
M: My siblings. And I went to see them one last time as male me, I didn’t tell them what was going on, but I saw them and I felt like I was dying, and I felt like they should see me as I was, because I knew where it was going. And then the next time I saw them I was Michelle.
INT: And how did they react to that?
M: Really, really positively. Really lovely. I think they had difficulty.
INT: So this was just your siblings?
M: The siblings. And my parents I’d come out to as well, because they were worried. I’d suffered so much depression trying to keep it in, I was going nowhere, and I had to come clean. And my parents knew, so my siblings knew something was up as well. And when I finally told them, when they found out, I remember they said, “oh thank god, we thought it was something awful! We thought you were, you know, in trouble, or you know, in trouble with the police or something, or you were ill”. [laughs]
INT: It sounds a very positive response. You said siblings, how many are there?
M: I’ve got a sister and three brothers actually, but we’re all half brothers and half sisters, we’ve got different parents.
INT: Difficult to get them all together?
M: No, no, it just gradually happened. And I told people, and then I started coming out. And I came out to my family, first, actually, more before anyone else.
INT: When you say family is this your partner?
M: Yeah my partner and my birth family, so you know my mother and stepdad, and father and stuff. And I just planned it so I’d come out gradually. And, someone gave me some great advice, and that was at the Clare Project, because I was so worried about being ostracised or them being angry with me, and you know, I thought the worst, but obviously they’re such a loving family. Someone gave me this bit of advice, which was just tell them how much you love them, and keep telling them you love them and nothing’s changed. And I did that, and I think that was the great, the best advice I had, because you know, they know.
INT: You know they know!
M: [laughs] Yeah! And they see me as the same person.
INT: That’s when the journey took off I suppose. How about your partner, how did she react?
M: I think she tried, and I think she could see things were very difficult. And I think she wanted me to make a decision, really. I think she wanted me to go and do the right thing. She didn’t want to pull me back and hold me back. I really believe that. And you know, all-round she’s ok, she’s a good person. But I think she had real difficulty with it, real difficulty. And I think she felt very hurt. So I think that side of things has been difficult, and there’s a question over whether it was my choice, and whether I should bear the consequences. But I certainly, I agree, you know I do have to bear the consequences and accept that.
INT: Consequences in what sense?
M: Well, of actually trying to work out my gender. And actually pretty much we knew that that was the end of the marriage.
INT: Yes so that’s one big big consequence.
M: Yeah. That’s a huge consequence. Because I never expected to get married and have to break it up because of this.
So that was one of the questions that was levelled at me really. You know, “why would you marry someone when you knew you were a woman?” And what I’d say to that is that I went in to the marriage knowing there was something about me that was different but thinking that I could make the best of it. And actually I thought that it made me a better person to know that I’m different. And things like being able to be feminine, you know and understanding femininity, that a lot of guys perhaps don’t really grasp it as well as I did I think.
INT: You used a phrase earlier, “you made a pretty good job of trying to be a man”, or something like that.
M: It wasn’t consciously an act. But it did feel like a mask that I had to wear, and I think this is what gender dysphoria is, I think it ends up with you tearing yourself apart. Because I felt very uncomfortable in quite a lot of places, I had anxiety and depression, I had panic attacks in public, I never felt quite right.
INT: What was the panic attacks like?
M: They were usually sort of paranoid feelings of people looking at me, or I felt like I was sort of dying or ill, and I was very anxious about things, and this went on for years and years, and I tried to cope but I think that I put that down to my own sort of internal struggle with gender.
INT: Has that changed at all?
M: Yeah, I don’t get them now, at all. And I don’t know why, but I feel a lot more comfortable all round walking around town dressed the way I am, being myself. And I explained this to one of my friends actually and we were in a crowd of people, and I said I would have been having a panic attack now as there were so many people looking at me. I said imagine you as a male, because he’s male, walking round in drag wearing women’s clothes, would you feel comfortable? And he said “no I’d feel awful, really terrified people were staring at me”. And I said well I felt perhaps I was in drag some way [laughs].
INT: It’s very hard to describe isn’t it in realistic terms that people can understand without being simplistic about it?
M: Yeah but but I did truly believe I felt like I was wrong, I couldn’t get my head around the way I was, the way I was expressing myself just felt wrong.
INT: So the panic attack things changed, and your kind of comfort in company has changed, what other things have changed since you came out?
M: Well, I think my relationships with people are a bit better. I feel much more true to people and much more interested in other people, so that’s good, you know I feel I’ve got better bonds with some of my closer relatives, and that’s purely because I feel I’m being myself to them and I don’t have to lie, so that’s great. I’m also feeling much more [that] my self-esteem’s gone up, generally, I mean it wavers [laughs]
INT: Self-esteem – does that influence work at all?
M: Yeah, and that was an interesting aspect. Because the work situation was another thing that really held me back from transitioning and coming out, and I was very worried because there was no real knowledge of transgender at my work place, and I think it wasn’t malicious but I don’t think they really knew about these things.
And I just was fortunate enough to kind of come out to the right person, and just admit what was going on. And I didn’t really plan it, it just happened, as part of a chat. There was a conversation actually about Trans people in Brighton, and I got upset, and one of my managers just said “have we touched a nerve here?” And I said well yeah, as it happens… And from there it was let’s get HR involved, let’s talk about how we’re going to sort this out, and then I took a day off work and I helped draft an email that they would send round. And the next day I came in after they sent the email round and my inbox was full of happy emails, people saying you know, “good on you”, and I think most people were generally quite accepting. I think we wrote the right email, which was basically very formal, it came from the management as well, which made it sort of more bona fide, you know [laughs]. I include[d] some links to resources like The Clare Project, the Gires website and so on, so it was informational in case people had never heard of this and also I said, if anyone’s got any questions I’m quite happy to talk to people if they want to talk to me, if they’re worried or whatever.
INT: Seems a really good approach.
M: Yeah and it worked, because I’ve been there now with my name and transitioned at work with hardly any issues, still doing quite a good job there I think.
INT: How do you enjoy going to work now?
M: I think it’s good yeah. It’s quite stressful and difficult sometimes. But the actual work just keeps you involved in something that’s not related to gender at all. So it’s sort of a break from the rest of my life in a way! [Laughs] Just get on with that!
INT: What’s the rest of your life about if it’s not work? You’ve got a lot going on for you I guess.
M: Yeah, another thing that I’ve always done in my life is I’ve always been into music very much and I’ve been in several bands since I was young really. And I had a long break of music. And the last year I just joined a band and started drumming for a band called Slum of Legs, and that was great. Because bashing a drum is the best thing to get things out your system [laughs]. So yeah Slum of Legs are going strong at the moment, we’re really enjoying ourselves.
There are six of us in the band, we’re an all-girl band which I had to get in, and I’ve been truly accepted in to that which is amazing. And there’s a violinist, Maria, guitarist Kate, bass guitar Alex, Emily keyboards, Tamsin singer, and me drums, Michelle. And we gel quite well. We’ve all got sort of different tastes. We sound – I don’t know what’s our sound like? We do have similar kind of interests and tastes really, but we sound kind of miserabilists, kind of indie, but poppy punk, noisy – and we love things like the Velvet Underground, we really like gigs, Sly and the Family Drone…
INT: Sounds like a really vibrant kind of thing to be involved with?
M: Oh and also I’ve written a song. I’ve never had the confidence to properly write a song, and particularly singing’s always been a struggle, but I’m doing backing vocals in Slum of Legs. And I talked to Tamsin about some words I’d written. And it’s based around a dream I had and it’s sort of related to transition because the dream was quite early on and it was when I thought this whole transition stuff’s a bit of a battle, and it’s like in my subconscious I was battling something. And I dreamt actually that I met Winston Churchill [laughs] and he was very nice actually, he bought me a drink and he said “you look like Grayson Perry”, and I had to explain to him what the difference was between someone like Grayson Perry and me. And he said “well you’re looking good”. And then it got more kind of intense because it was talking about Putin and Russia and oppression and things, and it was like we’re going to win this battle, you know we’re going to win it. So the song’s about that and it’s called Doll Like and I’m really proud of it actually, it’s the first thing I’ve ever written which I really like.
INT: This sounds like a remarkable dream as well, a very evocative dream I have to say.
M: [laughs] Well it is a battle, I mean I think you have to prepare yourself if you’re doing anything like me, which I wouldn’t recommend unless you need to, but to transition is quite a battle, and you do have to think very hard about how you approach things with people, because remember they’re on a journey with you as well.
INT: Your approach sounds, if I can make an observation about it, sounds very positive.
M: Yeah. I’d, I’d like to be positive. And I think I believe that people genuinely, want the right thing, and actually that most people are quite nice, they just sometimes don’t really understand, and I think it’s just about getting rid of that ignorance, and you know, without sounding patronising or anything, but it’s basically educating people about what Trans can be for different people. And it’s so diverse, just like anything.
INT: Could you perhaps talk about some of the best things about having come out and being on this pathway?
M: Apart from the personal things which I’ve mentioned, things like my health and my self-esteem, which have just been remarkable, you know genuinely I feel much more like myself, there’s also some brilliant people that I’ve met, and I’ve been to certain groups and met all sorts of people and they’ve been inspirational for me.
INT: Is there a trans community as such?
M: Absolutely. Yeah I think there is. And I think that it changes all the time as far as I can see and I haven’t been in it I guess that long, but the people I’ve met I feel I’ve connected [with] quite well with because I think we’ve got a shared kind of history, a shared background in some way, even though everyone is so different and they’ve all got different jobs and different interests, there’s quite a lot of diversity within the trans community, interestingly, and Brighton’s a great place for meeting trans people and talking about things, talking things through. But yeah it’s been inspirational for me to meet so many different people and to change my mind, especially around people and gender and all sorts of aspects around people, even sexuality and so on, things that I thought I knew so much about it, I didn’t.
INT: You mentioned sexuality, and there’s obviously a difference between gender and sexuality, but has there been a change in your own feelings about your own sexuality since transition began?
M: Yeah, I think it opens your mind more to people more than gender. Because speaking to other people I’ve certainly noted the idea that there’s no male or female binary, that there’s just aspects of gender, and there’s maybe a spectrum, [which]really means that you’re just attracted to someone who’s somewhere within that spectrum. You may be attracted to people who’ve got attributes that are more male than female or the other way round, but actually it allows you to say well, ok, I like girls, but there’s somewhere in that spectrum that I find attractive as well, and that’s ok, because there’s no binary.
And so you become more, I guess the word’s pansexual, or you’re more interested in people. But for me I, I did have a sort of moment where I really questioned what was going on and who I found attractive, because I never saw myself as a gay man, and I puzzled over that quite a bit, and I think as things went on with my transition I realised that no, I wasn’t a gay man, I was probably a bisexual woman really, and who I find attractive, their gender really doesn’t make a huge difference, so sexuality-wise I think they’re just labels really.
INT: It seems like from the point of sexuality it’s been a liberating process.
M: Yes, yes absolutely, because I think it opens your eyes to gender, and attractiveness, and attributes of people, and you know the whole idea of male/ female binary, I’ve wiped it out of my head and that’s been a huge benefit to me [laughs]. I think it’s a good way to look at the world actually.
INT: So that’s a really positive thing in terms of your own feelings about your own sexuality. Does being transgender pose any particularly obvious problems in terms of forming relationships? Emotional and sexual?
M: Possibly. I think it’s best to be upfront, no-one’s trying to fool anyone, and I think that it presents a problem, in the way that someone would say that they’re a lesbian or a gay man, that kind of says to me that they’re not interested in trans people, but I’m not sure, you know. Because until you’ve met them and chatted to them you don’t know. So it’s more about would they find me attractive, and yeah, it can present a few issues but actually you know, if they’re honest, a lot of people probably find us attractive, I think, I think I’m attractive and I think there’s more to life than just looks anyway. Actually I think you know what’s attractive is someone that’s just bright and talented and lovely and nice. [laughs]. So the whole idea of whether they’re Trans or not is not too relevant. I think it can just make you feel a little bit less confident.
INT: I just wanted to pick you up on that sort of thing that you said before, about not wanting to fool anyone…
M: I guess the whole idea of me being a man trying to be a woman, or feeling like I’m a woman, I just find that really hard to understand. I can’t really grasp that idea. But the idea of me being a woman born with male bits is much easier for me to get scientifically as well, I can understand that I was born that way, but I can’t understand that I was a man. And I think that meeting people who were attracted to me, I think that they would have to see me as a woman. And I think that’s a difficulty because, someone that’s attracted to me might be a straight guy, and then when they find out I was born male they might change their opinion about me and you know, it’s going to be difficult for them to grasp.
So there’s always that doubt I think of how people view you and what they’re attracted to. If I knew someone was attracted to me because they think I’m male trying to be a woman I wouldn’t like that. And I don’t think I’d feel comfortable in that relationship.
INT: So whatever relationship you’re in, even though you’re open to non-binary relationships, you do feel that you want people to accept you as a woman?
M: Yeah, and not necessarily in a binary way, just I feel like I was born female, but with male bits [laughs]. And if someone can grasp that, you know I think that’s the thing to get your head round, yeah. And that’s the difficultly, it’s very difficult for people to grasp that.
INT: OK, so what does that future hold for you? I’ll come back to relationships perhaps in a moment, but can I ask you how you’re mov[ing] forwards with transition now in Brighton?
M: I’m finding it a lot more easy to get by, and I’m not having much difficulty to be honest within the town in terms of transitioning.
INT: How about the medical side of it?
M: Yeah, there’s very definitely a part of it that’s medical, and you really need the doctors behind you with this. So, I’ve actually changed doctors just to find someone who understands,and just seeking as much help as I can.
INT: And do you get the help that you need?
M: Yeah starting to, it’s a very slow process, but I think as long as you’re prepared that’s fine.
I’ve been referred to Charing Cross, so that’s seeing an endocrinologist and two psychologists, so we’ve been through the whole idea of gender dysphoria and what we could see happening with all this. I want to progress with hormones and voice coaching and I’m having electrolysis. So the physical things are really helping my self-esteem, it’s very important, without those things it’s really difficult to feel that this whole thing is going well.
INT: Is Charing Cross giving you the support with electrolysis and voice coaching and so on?
M: I’ve applied for it so there’s the possibility I could get some electrolysis on the NHS, I’ve paid for it privately so far, and voice coaching I haven’t really had a single lesson yet but I’d like to have some. And I think there’s a question over how far you go with everything; I mean I just feel that I keep going until my body is matching how I feel inside, and question everything I’m doing, and make sure it’s the right path for me. Don’t listen to too many people because It’s my journey, you know, and I’m in control of this.
I think looking after yourself and making sure you’re in control and you understand what’s happening to you is very important. So there’s definitely a medical aspect to the whole thing. I think I feel much better if my outward signs are that I’m female, because that matches who I am. So yeah that whole thing is getting better the more help I’m getting. At the same time, I’m quite wary actually of being that kind of stealth mode where people just see a woman, that’s not exactly what I want, because I think it’s important to be yourself and part of me is being Transgender. And so I’m quite open to that, and that’s one of the reasons I would do this interview because I think it’s important people understand I can be a woman, and I can be Trans, and it’s quite normal.
INT: So, where do you go from here in terms of relationships?
M: I think that’s something I’ve got to discover, and it’s got to come to me, and I’ve got to feel right about it, and I’m sure it’ll happen. I can’t say who I’d meet, but I’m kind of interested in how it’s all going to go. I don’t really know what to say about this! [laughs]
INT: It’s ok, you smiled immediately I asked you so it seems positive! Is there anything else that has happened or that you were thinking about that you really wanted to express on the tape for this interview?
M: Yeah I’m quite interested in the psychology and the power of the mind and the way that we think subconsciously and the way our brains work, and I’m not an expert on it, but I feel there’s something in your brain which is hardwired perhaps, certain things like gender, and I think the whole thing around it is to actually go with who you are, and I think then it’s literally like a wall coming down and we can be ourselves and be creative and that’s so important. And we’re quite lucky in this country to be able to do that, to be able to be ourselves, and not feel massively oppressed, and to have people high up behind us. And I feel like that that’s coming, it’s not exactly right but it’s coming in this country, and I think that around the world we need to push for that, so there is a bit of me that really wants to be a bit more active in some way.
INT: Be out and proud?
M: Yeah I think that’s it, I think that’s really important for all of us, to actually have some involvement in, in just changing people’s minds and perspectives, and seeing how important it is for everyone that we are ourselves and we’re diverse and we’re creative and that we contribute, and we’re all such beautiful people, it would be a shame to hide us.