You don’t need to be a girl (The story of a transsexual shaper)

My epiphany came in the glare of the setting sun through my windshield as I drove the winding back roads home after an amazing autumn session in overhead, offshore conditions. Ask any New Englander what their favorite season is and they will invariably answer: Fall. The burnt oranges, reds, and amber leaves of deciduous trees, the crisp air and cerulean hued skies, the scents of pine and salt air, pumpkins and apples at harvest, render both the sea and landscape a fantasyland of color, a smorgasbord for all the senses. Steering my car, subliminally registering the abstract blur of transitional colors, flushed with the après surf glow of a good session where I’d caught so many incredible waves, in fact probably my best wave of the entire year, it dawned on me as I crested that little hill in the road and the full luminance of that orange globe flared through my windshield, alighting not only the interior of my car but the dark corners of my cloistered inner consciousness.

Photos James Ready

The swell came product of a low pressure system that had swirled up the coast before spiraling off into the upper North Atlantic. These “Nor’easters” are the predominant swell generators for New England surfers and the best conditions come after the storm when the wind backs around with incoming high pressure and offshore winds groom what the previous day had been a gray and unruly chaos of whitewater and closeouts. On the best days, the waves can be world class and such was the case on this particular late afternoon session in October. I’ll never forget that wave, that day. The biggest set, maybe 3 ft overhead, of that session rolled in and I was in perfect position and caught a screaming wall with a hollow section that I came out of and the ride went on for almost 300 yds. Like a grom who’d just caught the best wave of their early surfing life, I emitted a long wailing hoot for almost the entire ride and when I paddled back to the lineup, I couldn’t seal my resulting Cheshire fissured face, nor did I care to, despite the fact that it’s never cool to actually self-acknowledge, or “claim” a good ride. But I just couldn’t help it. Flushed with exhilaration, I sat up on my board when I regained my position off the point and gazed off to the horizon with a post-coitus like rapture. The demons I’d battled on my drive to the beach that day, the voices in my head, the hurt in my heart, and despair in my soul, were for the moment, vanquished. Nothing else mattered but the endorphin rush, still coursing through my being. And as I sat waiting for the next set, my internal dialogue soothingly assured: “See…that’s all you need. That wave. That feeling, right there…you don’t need anything more than that. You don’t need to be a girl!”

Photos James Ready

That internal dialogue had grown ever more insistent, a resonant crescendo drumming within, more and more when I was alone with my thoughts; in the car, the shower, and especially long insomniac nights when I couldn’t muffle or muzzle it to silence. Or distract it by hurling into activities of hyper-focused intensity, like my soccer, or surfing. Denial is a powerful force in humankind, especially closeted humans. Oh, I tried to connive myself it wasn’t real, the feelings, the compulsions. I liked sports. I liked girls. How could I want to be one? Silly me; some girls like sports, and some girls like girls. And what I hadn’t yet discovered, was that it wasn’t that I wanted to be female…I was female. Forget the clichéd conception of a woman “trapped” in a man’s body, but a biologically female brain and psyche, imprisoned by a biologically male façade. Yet I tried to refute it. Like most people, I saw what was in front of me, a boy, then later a man, peering back from the mirror. I saw what my intellect and what society insisted was there. But mirrors don’t always reflect the truth; mirrors don’t reveal what lies inside us. And though the force of denial was strong with me, this force was, and is, stronger. This force cannot be denied. Invariably, whether early, or later in our lives, it comes down to two simple questions: Transition? Or die? For too many of us, the choice, the only “choice” part of our equation, is to choose the latter.
Transsexualism is one of the last taboos in the diverse amalgam that makes up the human condition. Lumped into the LGBTQ alphabet soup under “T” for transgendered, an all encompassing term that sometimes includes drag queens and cross dressers, it is still largely misunderstood, even by those well intentioned souls who seek to include rather than exclude us from society. Many people still believe it is a mental health condition (even though it has been recently declassified as such and hence removed from the latest editions of the DSM) rather than simply a medical condition. Even those who purport their “acceptance,” often do so from a place of belief that it remains a “lifestyle,” rather than an “accident” of birth. I’ve had good meaning friends even employ the word “Tranny” when speaking to me of other transgendered people they’ve known, seemingly unaware that this is a derogatory term on par with the “N” word. At least they don’t know any better; there are still far too many who openly mock the legitimacy of our claim to being mis-gendered at birth. It’s still okay for talking heads on TV and radio, actors in movies, and comedians on stage to go for the easy joke by holding us up as objects of hilarity. As recent as my generational history, some of us were sent off to quack shrinks who sought to “cure us” of these deviant thoughts and behaviors, some even being incarcerated in asylums.
Fear is the number one inhibitor preventing all of us from employing the key that we all hold in our own hands, to unlock the door to our personal closets. So I held onto my fears, and I stayed behind the door, in the darkness, slowly suffocating. My fears were powerful and numerous. They say to those of us contemplating transition, especially older transitioners like myself: Be prepared to lose…everything. And you do. I lost a home. I lost my hometown where my kids grew up, and my place in that community. I lost my three sons who have not spoken to me since that fateful day I came out to them six years ago. I lost my family of six siblings, excluded from their weddings, birth announcements, and all get-togethers, my only contact being the occasional “like” from the two brothers who have me on their Facebook pages. One brother at the time, emailed me about my “abhorrent” and “aberrant” behavior, and referred to my surgery as “Frankensteinian.” The general consensus from the rest is that I am selfish and self-centered for not caring what my transition does to the “family.” My mother doesn’t speak to me at all, though she “follows” me on Facebook. She forbade me from coming out to my father who was dying of lung cancer at the time I came out to her. Consequentially, my dad died believing me to be a fuckup and a “Loser” (his actual words) for the entirety of my directionless and listless life that he knew me. All my money and my retirement funds were sucked up in finance of my transition and I work now in a menial profession, tending to the elderly in a nursing facility, for obscenely little pay. I’ve known poverty and hunger and the cold of an unheated house in the middle of winter in Maine. I’ve also lived without running water or electricity, camping out in my little bungalow, purchased after my divorce, while I struggle to stave off the bank from taking possession through foreclosure.
Yes, I’ve lost much of what I had before my transition, but what I’ve gained in return is…everything. What I’ve gained is myself. And nothing on earth is worth more than the freedom of fear to be one’s self. Before I could embark on the path to realizing myself though, I had to first face that person in the mirror, and look behind the glass at the true person inside the two-dimensional reflection. For anyone emerging from any closet, the first step is admitting to yourself who you are. So my epiphany came in that glaring sun through my windshield when it occurred to me, that the little voice of rationalization I’d listened to out in the water after that amazing ride on an amazing wave during an amazing day…well, that voice was full of shit. Because I realized that for my mind to have even conjured the rationalization that all I needed was a tasty wave to quell those inner desires, only proved I’d been fooling myself all along. That in such a moment of enrapture, I still could not help thinking about being a girl, proved to me at last, I already was one.
One of the many fears I held on to was the fear of how my “change” would affect my surfing and specifically my place in the lineup at my local break. Always feeling a bit of an outsider anyway, not merely because of my inner struggles, but because being a military kid who travelled at the whim of my dad’s duty assignments, I never felt I really belonged, anywhere. Oh sure, I worked hard over the years to earn my place in the lineup, got to know all the locals and they me. I even managed to rise in the hierarchy to be one of the top surfers at my spot; I got a lot of the better set waves and the crew accepted me, at least out in the water. On land, I didn’t really associate with any of them. Through my married years I lived a bit inland and would only come to the coast to make quick hit-and-run sessions and then drive back over the winding roads to the suburban housing development where I lived the life of a typical “husband” and “dad.”
The funny thing about fear, our own personal and internal fears, is that once they are exposed, we discover that many of them are largely unfounded. I’d been out in the water so many times and listened to off-color jokes about gays and people like me, and just assumed most surfers were by nature, largely trans and homophobic. Yet what I discovered was that most were simply surfers and didn’t really care that much about the “issue” one way or the other. Explaining my circumstance, introducing myself by my “new” name to one of my long-time local surfing buddies, as we stood in the parking lot before our go-out–on one of those early days when I was still pre-op and awkwardly self-conscious–my buddy shrugged and said: “As long as you’re still surfing, that’s all that matters.” And what I’ve discovered since–at least where I live in Maine, where folks are pretty accepting of diversity–is that it really is only the surfing that matters. Sure, a couple of guys messed up my name a few times but I was not banned from the spot. I was not dragged off and duct-taped to a boulder and thrown into the deep offshore. I was not excluded or laughed at in any way by those that knew. I was just another surfer in the water. That same friend smiled at me that day as he snaked a wave and yelled back to me: “Just cuz you’re a girl now doesn’t mean I’m gonna give you any waves you know!” And five years on now, I’ve earned a new place in the lineup. Most of the girls who rarely spoke to me before, are my good friends in and out of the water now. And it’s easier to relate to the guys as well. There’s an ease about me where I don’t feel a need to hide anything, and I sure as heck don’t need to compete with them anymore, trying to prove I’m more “man” than them, cuz I’m not! I no longer feel driven to be a better surfer than anyone, or to take the biggest and best waves off them, because what I’ve discovered is that it doesn’t really matter who the best surfer is on any given day. I surf more freely now; I’m content with less. Though I still get mad out in the water, it’s more my age and dwindling abilities that frustrate me than that need to prove I’m still a hot, aggressive, alpha surfer.
In the aftermath of my transition, I’ve listened to people tell me how courageous I am. For standing up to my denial and fears, for overcoming the ridicule, humiliation, and especially the loss of much of what I had before, the loss of almost everything that was familiar and comfortable, if ill fitting on my soul. But I don’t feel especially courageous; no more courageous than a spawning salmon fighting the current and stones and waterfalls on its way upstream. I’m simply doing what I was programmed to do. Living the life I did before transition was the aberration. That was the courageous portion of my life. Living not for myself, but denying myself, in order to make those around me, those I loved feel…comfortable?
Most of the girls I’ve known, both personally and in online support groups, us older broads, will say the same thing about our transitions: The only regret we have is that we didn’t do it sooner. I’ve likened it to others as a Rip Van Winkle experience, an awakening from a 40 (or 50 in my case) years long nap and discovering that everything you knew and believed is different now. But where before was only a gloomy gray existence, is now illumed with colors and scents and experiences I never knew possible. In some ways I feel like a twenty-something, just starting out in life, only with the benefit of a lifetime of wisdom and experience that a twenty year old has yet to find. Sure, I still have fears and frustrations and not everything in my life is easy. In some ways, I’ve traded my old closet for a new one, hiding portions of my past to new people I meet, letting them assume things about my “ex-husband” and being a “mom.” Or especially the awkwardness of being amongst a group of women when the subject turns to “our” child-birthing experiences. Hell, being a “new” lesbian at 55 years old is another such challenge. I don’t have the benefit of a lifetime of womanly, let alone lesbian experience, and don’t really know how to conduct myself as such. Coupled that with fears that not all lesbians are that welcoming of people like me, ie. exclusionary groups that hold festivals entitled: “Womyn born Womyn” that seek to perpetrate the same prejudices they’ve presumably fought against their entire lives. Such entities only support the notion that there are those who still believe we are no more than “men in dresses.”
But in spite of such fears, in spite of those who would still deny us, I move forward. I continue to experience and live, to fight for my place in this world, this society, in the lineup…and to surf. I don’t really identify as “trans” anymore; never really did. That’s just another ill-fitting skin I wore for awhile because it was the term others employ to attempt understanding something they never will. I don’t condemn them; it’s not their obligation to understand but mine. But I don’t seek anyone’s “acceptance” either. How presumptuous that some boast their magnanimity in “accepting” or “tolerating” my existence as a unique and individual human on this planet, as we all are. I’m not interested in carrying a banner or placard to proclaim my pride though, I’ll leave that to the younger girls. Nor am I interested in being a professional Transgender; as I’ve said, that’s a term others use. The only part of me that was “trans” was my transition from living a lie to living as I am. And I’ve fought that fight too long and hard, simply to survive, to be me. I’ll support and mentor, but I’m not “out and proud” and in anyone’s face. I was born with a physical abnormality, plain and simple. But that never changed who I was or am. In the end, I’m a girl. I’m a woman. And I’m a surfer. I’ll keep paddling, always. And always, I’ll surf…

Photos James Ready

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