So this is me. Or one version of me. A selfie taken a few days ago in a moment of deep joy and contentment at the top of a hill not too many miles from home. I share it because it's where my story is right now, four years after coming out as a transgender woman. There I am. Just me. In what is one of the stranger pictures. You won't see many selfies of a transgender woman in a post about being transgender that look quite like this one. Welcome to my reality. I like it. Especially when I'm being a little more crazy or weird than usual.
I just read an article about what one person has learned coming out as a non-binary trans person at the age of 43. After 100 days they say they did everything too fast. Their experiences are those of one person. It is their truth.
My experiences and truth are also those of one person. They're bound to be a little different because I'm a woman, pure and simple, and about as far from non-binary as any woman gets. The article got me thinking about my own transgender life and the way I came out to the world and began to live publicly as a woman.
Here's a little of my experience. Just one woman trying to navigate her way into her truth. I've free written what follows and haven't edited at all. Any mistakes are my own.
I came out to myself in a way I couldn't ever deny again at the age of 43. 43 years to get to that point. From then on things moved quickly.
2 weeks on: I dressed solely in women's clothes. Except when preaching. Not publicly in skirts and dresses. Not yet. But solely in woman's clothes I'd bought for myself via the miracle of very cheap charity shops. I didn't have a clue what I was doing. Everything was a matter of experimentation and sometimes I got it very wrong and nobody told me quickly enough before I had a chance to inflict my lack of dress sense on the world.
4 weeks on: I had told pretty much everyone that I was now Clare. The church leaders panicked about how to tell everyone and that delayed legal changes and the whole process. Most people were okay about it. Some people rejected me. Some people told me at length how staggeringly wonderful they were to not totally reject me. Gee, thanks!
8 weeks on: Having sorted things out with the church and had a ten day holiday as Clare (during which time my transition was officially announced to the congregation) I got round to legally changing my name. Much paperwork. Some people change their name quite often. They must love paperwork.
I was that (appearing to the world) 40 something man in a frock. Dark shadows of stubble. No make up. No hair removal. Hair that I'd cut short a few weeks before coming out. Totally, completely obvious. I was yet to meet anyone from Tyne Trans (as was). I had asked the GP to refer me to the gender dysphoria service – 27 days after coming out to myself, half of which was waiting for the appointment! - but my first appointment wasn't until three and a half months after signing that deed poll. To all intents and purposes anyone who saw me in the street would have clocked me as a cross dressing man not as a woman determined to be herself.
And sometimes, unsurprisingly, the world made things bloody difficult. Bloody difficult. Transphobia is real. If I had phoned the police every time I experienced it I would have been phoning a lot. Every. Single. Day. At times it was horrible. Truly horrible. And I was one of the more fortunate ones. Others have suffered a hell of a lot more than me after coming out. Every one of them is amazing for getting through that hell. When people quote the suicide and attempted suicide rate for transgender people I can only wonder why it isn't higher. For the record, in the UK nearly half of all transgender people have attempted suicide.
Four years have passed since I came out and demanded to be called Clare and she. Woe to anyone who deliberately calls me he or protests that they don't see an issue with it if I get misgendered or who tells me it's too hard to remember that I'm female and so would like to be addressed as female. Fortunately that doesn't happen much now – and most people I see never knew me as he. Yes, pretty much my entire life, excepting family, is filled with people I didn't know four years ago.
I've learned a lot in those four years.
Would I do it again? Come out like that?
You bet I would. Except I'd have done it quicker.
And I wouldn't allow a religion to delay anything. I truly wish I'd come out to the church in the middle of a sermon I preached. It was very tempting indeed and I wish I'd done it. After coming out I was told that it would be "inappropriate" for me to preach or lead anything in case "anyone is ever worried." All the confusion. All the having to meet with diocesan pastoral advisors and so on. Just so I could be banned and yet find that the congregation itself was supportive. Yeah, I wish I hadn't let the panicking of the CofE delay me for one second.
If I knew now what I knew then I wouldn't have been so afraid. And to be honest I spent the entirety of those 8 weeks in a state in which my great joy at accepting myself was mixed with an immense amount of terror. Some days I didn't know whether I could do it and without my immediate family and the support of another church - Northern Lights MCC - I might have taken longer about the whole thing.
If I knew now, there would have been less fear. And I would have reached that deed poll milestone quicker.
I have regrets. I shouldn't. Because what's the point? I might as well regret not coming out when I was at college – and I was thinking only this morning of a couple of times the truth was very close to the surface in my mind and how things could have been different if I'd only chosen to speak one sentence differently. I might as well regret my A level choices or giving up the violin when I was nine or anything else that I can't change. Maybe they're not regrets. And each one led in some way to my life being as it is.
But I'd certainly change some parts of the coming out process if I had the chance. Not just the CofE thing.
I regret not telling my online world en masse rather than having to pluck up courage - through terror, always through terror - to tell people one at a time. I'm grateful my mum accidentally outed me to some people, after which I just said "To hell with it" and told the rest.
I regret that my Facebook account is not the one I had under my old name. There were many years of history on that old account and I wish I'd kept it back than and closed this one. The account is still there. With no friends. My old name isn't even friends with my new name.
I regret how defensive I've been about the whole trans thing and how much of that arose from fear and an expectation, borne of 43 years of self rejection and self hatred, that many people who reject and hate me too. I guess most people who come out can got through an over-defensive time arising from that same fear. Bear with us, we get over it – just don't expect us to ever give way to prejudice. We won't.
But these regrets and others are only little compared to the satisfaction and life-changing wonder of coming out at all, of acceptance. It's not just that I'm happier as Clare, more content, and so on. My life has been completely changed in many ways that wouldn't have been possible probably had I not done this. Or if possible, very unlikely.
I have met so many amazing people I wouldn't have met otherwise - including many of you. I've been so blessed. And I meet many more amazing people every time I uncover a little more of myself – this transgender, autistic, creative, weirdly spiritual, nature loving woman.
I've done amazing things too. In my own way. And being Clare has allowed me to start to work through other aspects of my life and being and slowly begin to heal and allow myself to be me.
Without coming out I don't think I'd have been able to accept being autistic. I don't think I'd be exploring creativity as I am. I wouldn't have encountered Broadacre House, wouldn't have completely transformed my faith and spiritual life - and I don't think I'd ever have found the freedom to leave church and start to find my own path again.
Yes. It's been bloody difficult. And there have been lots of difficult things in the past four years. Autism - yeah, that's been tougher than being transgender in very many ways. I've cried. Lots. I've been rejected by some. I've been labelled an abomination by my own church pastor (not the CofE or MCC one). My mental health, while generally much improved, continues to be a minefield just as it always has.
But it's been worth it.
Fabulously, profoundly, superbly worth it.
And I look forward to my future as Clare, as the person I'm discovering myself to be. I am excited for my future. Excited to meet more amazing people and do more amazing (for me) things. Excited because there always seems to be a new surprise when you allow the surprises and give them permission to bring change.
I'm typing all this in my bedroom. Nearly everything in here isn't just something I didn't own before coming out. It's something I wouldn't have considered owning at all. Not just the obvious clothes. But soft toys, my books, the purple Buddha on the wall, that whisk over there that doubles as a head massager (buying it was hilarious), precious things from autism conferences, poetry books, writing books, the meditation material on the bed, precious items from Manchester, even a series of books called Skulduggery Pleasant. I wouldn't have read those if I hadn't come out. I look at this room and know that my life is almost infinitely better for coming out.
My life is very much not as I would have expected it to be. And the changes just keep happening. There are more on the way that I know about. And there will be more surprises too.
I give thanks for Clare.
In ten days time I will give thanks again. For it will be the fourth anniversary of the night I looked at myself in a mirror, fully dressed as myself without guilt for the first time in my life, and greeted myself as Clare for the first time. Welcomed myself into the world.