It's a Guy Thing

Transgender: Helen’s story.

French philosopher René Descartes declared, “I think, therefore I am.” I have never had an issue with the initial claim of this assertion, but the conclusion has – in my opinion – always been open to conjecture. Who I am, what makes me, me, and what is the essence of me, have been perennial puzzles for most of my life. As a kid I would often lie awake in bed pondering what it felt like to be me. I have written about identity on many occasions, although if I condensed these reflections down to a primary presumption, I would cite that character is a direct result of circumstances: heritage, family values – especially during the formative years – culture, education, friendships, and geographical locations. 

As a man, I have never questioned my identity with reference to that term alone. I have always considered that my gender is fixed. Nevertheless, my individuality has seen many changes ─ for example, through the influences of further education, work (predominantly as a police officer), marriage and later loss, but most fundamentally, when I became a father. All of these impacts have been experienced and negotiated within one stable context – being a man. At a stretch, I can imagine what it may be like to be a woman, but the thought of childbirth will always make me step back from going much further with this particular thought experiment.

I am a man and know – from first-hand experience – what it feels like to be male within the perspective of my unique identity. Even so, I have frequently wondered how someone can be so convinced that the body they occupied at birth is in some way, shape, or form, defective. Wrong. Unsuitable. Incompatible with how they see themselves. I have struggled with how forgiving, empathetic, confident, and compassionate (to name but a few personal traits) I am, but I have never believed that my body wasn’t fit for the permanent housing of my identity. 

I have wanted to understand about becoming and being transgender for some time, and although I have watched documentaries and read widely, my knowledge of this human story was still wholly deficient; until I met Helen.

Outwardly she looks, acts, and speaks, like any other beautiful woman, and has all of the visible attributes. Indeed, her cleavage is on the more emphatic side of the boundary wall. She is a woman; however, we share a common legacy: we were both born as male babies. With her kind heart she agreed to talk about her journey and, in listening, I had a motive of my own – to better understand what it feels like to be me – a quest I have yet to fulfill. I hope that my questions were respectful, although I can never eliminate clumsiness – an attribute that has dogged my entire life. 

I was keen to hear about Helen’s formative years, and in charting her incredible personal voyage, context was essential. “I had a very good upbringing ─ a nice home, great mum, and a younger brother who at times was a pain! But, nonetheless, I loved him. I enjoyed school and had a bunch of friends I could count on one hand who were all girls. I asked for absolutely nothing; however, I felt something different inside.” I encouraged Helen to expand on this emotional leaning. She explained, “I remember, aged around eight, looking at other girls and wondering why I was different. I had no connection with, or longing to do, what the boys were doing. I would play with girls, whether it be in the playhouse, or playing with toys the girls chose, including dolls and skipping. Even when it came to dressing up at school, I longed to look like the other girls. I had absolutely no idea why I felt different ─ but I did. This continued for several years whilst I suppressed my feelings, until I reached my early teenage years. I obviously knew I had the body of a boy, but my thoughts and feelings didn’t match. Around fifteen I started to hang out with a couple of male friends, although I couldn’t say anything to them as I was too scared of what they might think. I tried my best to fit in, but I still had the feelings of being different.”

I was curious to understand how Helen handled these feelings alongside the usual explosions of adolescent emotional eruptions that we all had to navigate. “I would do subtle things like shave my legs and my armpits since I felt this was natural. I would also spend time looking at female clothing in catalogs or whilst shopping with my mum. I recall her once calling me a sissy because I was looking at female shoes. I felt a real sense of rejection from my mum at this point in my life. It hurt.” 

“I started to experiment with girls clothing when my family went out, keeping them locked in a cupboard in my room.” Helen displayed great ingenuity by securing a variety of items – including skirts, blouses, and cardigans ─ from the school lost property locker. “I often took underwear from my mum without her knowledge, or helped myself when I went around to my friend’s house. It felt normal to me, not in a sexual way, but like it should be the way I was dressing.”

The privacy didn’t last long as the pain ─ her brother – forced open the cupboard whilst Helen was at school. “When I got home I was vigorously questioned by my mum. I nearly died of embarrassment and I didn’t know how to react. I just had to try and hide my feelings and move on and became locked in my own thoughts, distancing myself from everyone.”

At eighteen Helen commenced a degree in mechanical engineering, very much influenced by her mum’s conviction that she wanted a ‘clever boy.’ Although still subduing the urges to express her femininity, and questioning the masculinity of this career path, higher education provided a vital breakthrough. “A couple of women were on the course too and I made friends with them. One day, during a break, I openly told them how I felt. I was at my lowest, struggling to come to terms with how I was feeling. It was hard but I eventually found the courage to express the way I felt. The girls were very understanding and accepting. They even gave me items of clothing they no longer wore.” She fulfilled her mum’s ambition by graduating in style, but Helen was still in hiding.

Now aged twenty, and an expert at stifling her emotions, she met and married her wife. To the outside world she was a loving and attentive husband and latterly a dad. “I had three amazing children with this lady; however, my life didn’t feel like it had meaning. I loved my children and my partner ─ they were my life ─ but something was biting away at me.” Harnessing the incredible individual courage to have what Helen describes as “the conversation,” she poured her heart out, chronicling the years of repression and personal censorship. 

“I told her I didn’t feel I should be perceived as a male. I didn’t look male, feel male, or act male. I explained I felt different and that I saw myself as a female. I found it unbelievably hard to explain but there it was ─ my feelings had eventually been heard. Amazingly she accepted what I told her, but inside I knew she was hurting, and no doubt felt the relationship had been a lie.” Nonetheless, she urged Helen to speak to the family doctor about her feelings. As Helen faced the certainty of having a similar discussion with her family, the guilt she now felt led to an addiction to painkillers.

About six months later Helen commenced therapy and for several years she was under the care of a psychiatrist, engaging in a three-monthly visiting plan. During this period she was expected to live as a female as a precursor to starting hormone treatment and later surgery. “My wife supported me through this process and I got a job as a support worker in the care sector. I could finally be myself ─ the woman I had previously tried so hard to hide due to fear of other people’s misunderstandings.” The wave of positivity then took a sharp downward turn as Helen made the following disclosure: “My mum had already dismissed my new life, dead naming me (the act of referring to a transgender or non-binary person by a name they used prior to transitioning) and referring to me as ‘he’.”

“The clinic put me on hormones to change my body, then, after another year, I was put forward for gender reassignment surgery. I felt on top of the world, but in the background, I also had problems with my home life.”

This reached extreme and utterly grotesque levels when her transition became the target of bigots. Her home was attacked on a regular basis, as was her car. “There was always a police presence at my house; I couldn’t call it a home because it had been invaded. My family were put through hell. I felt the lowest ever and believed that I’d let my family down. I thought if it ended my family would get the peace they deserved. I tried to take my own life, overdosing with a cocktail of pills. It didn’t work and thankfully my wife and mum called the paramedics.”

After a long-running battle with the local authority – supported by a transgender liaison officer – Helen and her family were relocated to a safer environment. “It was like a breath of fresh air ─ a new start. I could start living again, putting everything behind me. My family could finally move on and feel safe.” 

This change was dramatic, with Helen qualifying as a social worker and her children accepting the change. “I was seen as aunty as they didn’t want to explain where their dad was and they certainly didn’t want to explain why they had two mums – and I was ok with this. Things were finally working out for me. I could be me, alive, living the most I’d lived in a long time. I had taken up horse riding too and dressage is my forte. I bought my house, I was finally accepted as Helen, and I was on top of the world! The only thing missing was the sexual side of my relationship.” This realization had further repercussions.

“My wife had struggled to come to terms with me as a woman. She saw me more as a friend and we eventually grew apart. The children stayed with me and I brought them up, although my ex-wife was still a big part of their lives. I felt a great loss inside ─ she had been my rock for all these years and now she was gone. I couldn’t handle it and I tried to kill myself again because I couldn’t cope with the loss of our marriage. I hit rock bottom and ended up in hospital suffering with my mental health.”

In her role as a social worker Helen used her personal experiences of mental health and trauma to her advantage when it came to helping others. Her personal life began to blossom too. “I traveled the world, climbing mountains, hiking, and mountain biking around the country. I wouldn’t have considered this years ago when I was forced to live a life I wasn’t meant to live ─ a life when I was perceived as a ‘male.’ My mum finally accepted me; I am good friends with my ex and I have been blessed with three amazing and supportive children and my beautiful grandson! I hit a rough few moments that further defined me, but I wouldn’t change for the world. I am happy, I am finally me.”

In celebrating this most wonderful event horizon Helen paused for one more moment to pay tribute to her work colleagues and especially her managers. “They supported me from the very day they welcomed me to their team, through my separation, and massively throughout the drastic decline in my mental health.” And not forgetting her extraordinary niece and nephew. 

Knowing who you are may sound an easy concept to grasp, but it is perhaps the most difficult to realize. Living up to the expectations of others can be so consuming that self is often relegated. Helen was always Helen, and she knew this ─ and once you know, you know! Her bravery, benevolence, and belief are to be celebrated ─ especially by a young kid who wondered who he was all those years ago. Decades later I think I’ve finally realized what it’s like to be me: curious, creative, and consistently confused. In truth, I’ve not really changed, and meeting Helen allowed me to finally acknowledge my inner child ─ the real me. I’m happy in my skin ─ are you?


© Ian Kirke 2023 / @ianjkirke