5 Years on T

Today is 5 years of being on testosterone. That weekly shot and its effects are just so much a part of me now. I don’t have much to say about it. This anniversary is so muted this year because me being my better embodied self has just become who I am. It’s so commonplace now. And that’s a beautiful thing – to not have to be so caught up in how you look in terms of gender that being trans is all you can think about.

JK Rowling does not own The Magic: A very personal piece.

I promised to share the piece I wrote on JK Rowling for Herri magazine. It’s finally here!

I was asked to write a very personal piece. As you know, I can get very personal. This is the most personal piece I’ve ever written. I’ve included things I’ve never written about. Things I’ve only discussed with a handful of people. It was a difficult piece to write. Even more difficult to share. But it also feels liberating. I hope it resonates.


Dissociation and vulnerability

I’ve had a particularly difficult time in therapy. I think now that I’m seeing her in person after three months of Skype, I realise the powerful link between emotions and my body. If I feel emotionally vulnerable I feel physically vulnerable. So whenever I speak of one of my traumas, but especially infancy trauma, my body dissociates from the acute anxiety and I can’t think, let alone speak. So I’ve spent the last three sessions saying very little. And not being able to speak makes me feel more physically vulnerable so I’m able to think and speak even less.

When I do speak, I feel like I’m making things up, saying stupid and frivolous things. It’s like there’s something else, something more important I want to talk about and my fear of vulnerability is stopping me. So I dissociate and render my mind incapable of thinking and I work desperately so that I don’t think of anything, but especially not That Thing, whatever the fuck that is; but I know it’s linked to sadness. And the reason I paint myself into a corner is because that corner is safe and unlike That Thing doesn’t have the power to unravel me.

And that’s why last night’s diary was so short, and uninteresting. The dissociation also makes it difficult to connect with my experiences and so I have nothing to say about them. But what I am aware of and experiencing is Noah. Since the surgery I’ve felt so much closer to him; something I didn’t think was possible. We’re like lovestruck teenagers and can’t get enough kissing or touching. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that we can’t cuddle? Maybe. Anyway, the point is I think I’m not dissociating from Noah or my experiences with him because he’s safe. He, and my therapist to an extent, is the only person I’ll share my corner with. Because he and my therapist will just sit there with me in the silence and I’ll feel held and seen.

As I’m writing this, I wonder how much Noah’s surgery dredged up for me… And whether this is responsible for my fear of being vulnerable? Because with the possibility of losing Noah past losses are emerging in my unconscious mind? And because the loss of Noah threatens to unmake me, it’s bringing to the fore the losses that unmade me?

And right there is why this blog is so important to me: in a less anxious state – thanks, weed – I’m able to sit and think this through in my writing and come up with things I can’t think of when I’m riddled with anxiety in therapy. So grateful for this platform you give me through your support of these entries. Thank you! I can’t put into words what your presence in the diary in the form of likes and comments means to me.

Tattooing & self-harm: update

Day 15 of tattooing. Gave myself the ever necessary Deadpool hugging a unicorn. Work in progress. Going to make the tail trans blue and I just completely forgot about his satchel above his bum. And fix the shading. I was too scared to do whip shading so ended up shading really badly. And I don’t have that post-tattoo euphoria because I fucked that up. But, as is it’s part of my learning curve to tattoo on myself I can focus on that and say that I learned a LOT and did well given my beginner status. I need to remember that, keep an eye on the big picture and feel euphoria in the practise of learning and not just perfection.

The biggest lesson I learned? Tattooing is not self harm for me! I was very aware while tatting myself and the pain was so far in the back of my consciousness because I was concentrating so hard and focusing on getting it done well. When the pain did surface now and then it was just my body saying, hey, this hurts!

I can’t tell you how relieved I am to know that it’s not self harm for me! I’m glad I was wary as that’s the healthy, if irritating and uncomfortable, way to approach pain given my history. It shows I’m in a good space where I want to protect and nurture myself. This is HUGE! And it’s unconscious, and that’s even huuuuger because for 24 years I’ve done very little that wasn’t set out to destroy me, so for an unconscious and conscious self-destructive impulse to become an unconscious impulse, and a now conscious nurturing is big, in a seismic shift kind of way.

Self harm and tattooing

8 July: I started tattooing 11 days ago. A friend asked me a very perceptive question today: isn’t tattooing like cutting? I’m a survivor of 7 years of self-harm in the form of cutting and burning. So I read her question as: how can you tell if tattooing isn’t self-harm, given your history? This question does not catch me unawares at all. I’m very aware of this question and have been discussing it in therapy.

So the answer? As someone who has self-harmed I can’t take tattooing as lightly as most. My philosophy on tattooing is that the pain is a necessary part of a tattoo as you go through the rite of passage of getting permanently inked. A tattoo is not just an artwork. It’s an experience. Self-harm, though, is similar. I did it (and not all self-harm survivors feel the same, but many do) to feel the relief of the release of pain. There were always two immediate triggers: feeling too much and feeling nothing at all. So I self-harmed a lot. The pain thus numbed me to the too much feelings and gave me something to feel when I was feeling numb.

But like tattooing, the ritual and result of the self-harm became as important as the self-harm itself. I remember obsessively studying my wounds and scars as they would be a reminder that I was in control of my feelings. That I could numb them or create them. Tattooing is also about feelings. You choose something that brings you joy, comfort from sadness; something that commemorates something or someone that meant a lot to you. So how the fuck do I tell the difference between the two, as I have in the past used being tattooed as a form of self-mutilation and I know people who do the same.

I haven’t cut for 13 years (wow! Huge!) and have only burnt myself twice in the same amount of time. So I’ve had enough time living as an often tattooed person without self-harm to know that the answer to the conundrum lies in intention. With self-harm the intention is to inflict pain, to make me feel temporarily better and then the self-loathing that tells me I deserve nothing but pain. And that whole vicious circle. With tattooing, the intention is not to go through pain as an end in itself, but to experience the experience for what it is with the pain and to not to try to change it or mediate it because it results in something beautifully personal and meaningful. It’s kind of like a Buddhist experience (from my limited understanding)(getting really weedosophical…) Being tattooed, and now tattooing, is a meditative experience. It’s not about controlling feelings; it’s about just feeling them.

The endorphins and dopamine the body releases during physical pain also make for an interesting parallel between self-harm and being tattooed. And I think things get more murky here. Which is why I need to be careful and ask myself what my intention is. There’s nothing wrong with chasing that high. If my intention is to escape or control my emotions then something is wrong. As my friend says it’s cool that I can hold this duality in mind. And I can, because I know this is a complex issue, because I have a complex relationship with pain.

So I will be very mindful while practising this new artform on myself and will ration my tattooing of myself (even as I type this I know how hard that’s going to be). I need to work out what the balance is between that rationing and the necessity of practising on real skin.

10 July:

I’ve delayed tattooing my Deadpool onto me every day as every day that’s all I want to do. I’m delaying it until Sunday, because a week since my last tattoo feels like a good way to find the balance between tattooing and self-harm. This balance has been on my mind and has been on my mind every day since I started 13 says ago. I asked my therapist what she thought about the subject and she replied that she think I know that I’m using it as a self-harm mechanism.

I’m still working through what I think about this, so bear with me while I talk it through with you. Part of me thinks she’s wrong and part of me knows she’s right. As much as there’s practise skin and citrus fruit to practise on, real skin is very different and I feel I need to practise on both at the same time. So it’s part of the discipline of practising as much as I can. This is the part of me that’s logical and completely devoid of the complexity of my relationship with pain. The part of me that knows she’s right is worrying about me. (It feels so difficult to say this as I really don’t want to stop. The act of tattooing and the act of tattooing myself makes me happy).

When I spoke about this the other day I said that self-harm is about controlling and changing the way I feel – numbing the emotional pain or an attempt to feel something other than numbness. Is this happiness I feel when tattooing myself and when caring for the tattoo (let’s not forget that this is a wound) an attempt to avoid other, more painful feelings?

Ffs! Why do I even have to think about this?! Something that makes me happy should not be this fraught. Did self-harm make me happy? No. Did I look forward to the next time I could do it? No (unless someone or something was preventing me from self-harming). Am I in the same mental space as when I was self-harming? Not anywhere near it. So I don’t know what to say. And all I can think to do is just to continue being mindful about it while I continue to find the balance between the two while I continue to practise delayed gratification.

I would love to hear other tattoo artist’s thoughts or other current ot ex- self harmers with a complex relationship with tattoos.

My journey with gender

I have an atypical narrative when it comes to being transgender. The fact that it took me 38 years to figure out means that it was not something that I or anyone else was expecting. I did not know that I was a boy (I’m ok using the term boy for myself as a child even though I’m non-binary) living in a girl’s body. I did not verbalise that I was a boy as soon as I could speak. Some trans people have this story. It is not mine.
I’ve come out four times in my life. Once as a lesbian (21). Then as a genderqueer person (34). Then as a non-binary transgender person (38). And then as a pansexual person (39). I came out so late as a lesbian because I had been completely, unknowingly, asexual until then. I found boys and girls attractive. I didn’t know at the time that what I thought was true – that I found the boys attractive and the girls someone to emulate – was, in fact, the opposite. The girls I ogled (in a non-sexual way), stole photographs of and day-dreamed of being best friends with were, in fact, attractive to me. I know that now. (So yes, it wasn’t a non-sexual ogling). The good-looking boys with thick eyebrows, chiselled jaws and honed muscles from their A-team sports were who I wanted to be.
I remember playing as a kid. I had my Barbie (a Tropical Barbie with hair as long as she was) and I dressed her in a wedding dress (actually, so did my sister, so our Barbies were, in fact, married to each other!), but I much preferred my Hot Wheels cars, playing Cowboys and Indians (god, how racist that game was!) and doing handstands against trees. One particular game my sister and I played was with those Baby Angels – the ones with the plastic heads and hands but stuffed bodies? I was Mack. My sister was Bonnie and the doll was our quadraplegic brother, Zach. We would take Zach to sit, well, lie, by the side of the pool while Mack and Bonnie swam. I would either swim in just my underwear or I would pull my bathing costume down around my hips, because that’s how boys swim. I remember my first feeling of dysphoria (discomfort with gendered body parts) at around the age of 16. I developed breasts by age 11, the first in my class, so I was suddenly popular at the end of year movie in the hall where, as soon as the lights went off, the boys and girls scooted from their respective sides of the room and the prettiest girls paired up with the handsomest boys. That year was the first time I was paired up. From then I realised that my breasts got me attention. Unfortunately my breasts continued to grow (I ended up with GG size bras and life-long backache and scars on my shoulders from the bras cutting into my flesh) and I soon learned that breasts get you attention alright, but not always the consensual kind. So I hated them. I loathed them. Years later I would fantasise about cutting them off with the guillotine at work.
But it was more than the tremendous emotional pain and embarrassment that my breasts caused me. I realise now that they connected me to the other girls and my mother in a biological way; a connection that I did not feel. I have a very powerful memory (my memories of my childhood and school are very patchy and few and far between) of being at Jeppe Girls (a high school) and changing in the school hall for physical education with the other girls in my class. That moment between school dress off and t-shirt on was one of the most painful memories I have. Such embarrassment. Such disconnection. Such dysphoria. This knowledge only came to me a few weeks before my top surgery. The soul-shaking relief of the realisation that I could have these anchors taken off my chest allowed me to think about my childhood self as someone with no breast growth yet, as someone who was as genderless (I did not keep my nipples by choice) as I was about to be. I realised that I had already been through so much trauma that my childhood self hid the feelings of dysphoria so deep just in order to survive. As soon as I was strong enough, namely 38, to not just need to survive, but thrive, the dysphoria reared its head in earnest.
I had a breast reduction at the age of 33. I walked into (after days of queueing and paper filling) the plastic surgeon’s rooms at Joburg Gen (a government hospital) and he asked me whether I was sure I didn’t just want my breasts removed. I was so taken aback by the idea (the idea of lesbianism had only been in my consciousness for 13 years, and had never heard of the word “transgender”, let alone know that trans people existed) that I reassured him that I just wanted a reduction. I clearly wasn’t ready to even contemplate who I was. The reduction helped significantly with the self-loathing. But it wasn’t enough. I was still unhappy and deeply depressed.
It wasn’t until I met queer and trans people people that I realised what the fundamental mistake I was making was. A fundamental cisgender mistake. I was conflating sex and gender. Being lesbian meant, in my limited vocabulary, butch. Yes, there were femme lesbians, but I was sporty and a tomboy, so I painted myself as butch. Meeting these queer people allowed me to realise that butch, for me, was a gender, not an expression of sexual orientation. This revelation freed me to an extent I don’t even think I realise yet. Realising that my gender was something I hadn’t explored yet (I had explored my sexual orientation and realised that I was bisexual), and the idea of a blank canvas upon which I could paint myself was astoundingly liberating.
I found photography like some people find Jesus. Self-portraits became the way I explored my gender. I shaved my head to create the blank canvas. I put make-up on. I put dresses on. I put moustaches on. I revelled in the experimentation to see what felt comfortable for me in terms of gender. And I found the answer in genderqueerness. Genderqueer, for me, is the knowledge that gender is a construct and that we therefore perform our gender through gender expression and gender roles. And if this is true then it means that we can play with gender. And I played my little genderqueer heart out in my self-portraits and portraits. And I was happy. And then I wasn’t.
I remember writing on Facebook that I needed queer people to spend time with as I no longer felt part of the lesbian world. A friend that I had met while delivering the paper I spoke about earlier at Wits told me about a support group – CtrlAltGender that was for gender variant people. Intrigued and excited, I went. And I fell in love. I fell in love with the unconscious realisation that being with these transgender people felt like home. It wouldn’t be until a year or two later that I confirmed that I was transgender.
Thinking that you might be transgender is not an easy thing to realise. For me it meant that I would need to transition medically (not all trans people do and they are still trans), and this scared me and my girlfriend at the time, to the point that she said she would leave me if I started testosterone. So my own fear meshed with her fear and I pushed the thoughts aside quite successfully, on the whole. I was then invited to speak at the Philadelphia Trans Health Conference. I arrived in Philly (my first overseas trip) to a hotel full of trans people. I remember feeling so held and loved as we all sat and ate our waffles. But I was about to have that feeling multiplied exponentially. There were 3000 trans, intersex and non-binary people at the conference – the biggest in the US. And I immediately knew I had to transition. That first day I bought myself a binder and a packer and I resolved to start testosterone as soon as I got home.
And I did. And I haven’t looked back since. Being on testosterone and having top surgery has been the most self embracing thing I’ve ever done. It’s like I took little Germaine into my arms, gave him a hug and held him until he felt safe. And that safety has been the springboard for so much growth and mental well-being. I have grown more in the last four years than I ever have. I have come to a space with my mental health that has been impossible even after two decades of therapy. I have come to know myself, who I am, who I want to be, who I don’t want to be and who I want and don’t want in my life. There’s still a ways for me to go before I’m as healthy as I want to be, but embracing my correctly gendered self, Gabriel, I have removed the obstacle that my dysphoria (physical, social and emotional) has been and can now focus on myself as myself.

Mourning, anger, self-parenting

I’ve been very sad and down again today. To the point that I didn’t want to have my Skype therapy in case it brought up more sadness. Which it did. We mainly spoke about how I don’t know what to do with sadness. It’s like a sore back that won’t react to pain pills or massage; a constant ache that affecfs every move you make. The only relief would be tears. But I can’t cry.

But my body wants to cry as much as my psyche does. I sometimes find tears in my eyes for no physical reason, but without a direct thought in mind at the time and without any of the other crying indicators – no lump in throat, no rush of warmth from from the chest. So we spoke about why I can’t cry.

Basically, I’m scared that the tears of 43 years will unmake me. I’m scared of being vulnerable and not getting what I need from others in that moment. And I’m scared of being overwhelming, to myself and to others. I spoke to a friend of mine who also has developmental trauma and she said that she also used to be scared of dying from the tears, but that once she let go of the mothering she needed and didn’t get (which is a lifetime of letting go), she’s been able to be more nurturing to herself, and in this process has cried. A lot. And no, the crying did not unmake her. It heals, it changes, she said.

I realise while writing now that I need to know that I can look after myself and be there for myself when I breakdown and cry; that I’ll know what to do with myself; that I’ll know that I’ll be nurturing. And perhaps that’s what the not being able to cry is all about:that while I hold onto instead of mourn the untraumatised childhood and nurturance I should have had, I can’t mourn it. And if I can’t mourn it then I’ll never be able to realise that my parent figures need replacing. And if I don’t allow myself to mourn I’ll never be able to do the healing I need to do in order to be the parent to myself that I need to be. And that parent is going to have to do a lot of consoling, nurturing, loving, healing

I also realise now, as I’m talking to you, that the main emotion behind holding onto the life I should have had, is anger. Again, an emotion I don’t know what to do with, so I don’t feel it often. Right now that anger is just felt on the surface; an academic anger that understands why I have every reason to be angry. I can feel the deep anger in there. Not always, but when I think about this topic, which is not often, I can feel the roiling anger in my chest. The tethered rage. So perhaps feeling that rage and letting go of it through expressing it is what Ineed to be able to cry. To be able to mourn.

But self-blame is easier to feel than anger or sadness. It’s easier to believe that the traumas were my fault. Something that I had done. Something that happened because I was me. It’s easier to believe that my depression is my fault. It’s easier to believe that that I am mad than believe that my childhood, my adulthood was mad. Don’t pathologise yourself, my therapist said when I was wondering whether I’m sad or low-grade depressed. Don’t pathologise yourself when your childhood was crazy; when your familial relationships are psychotic.

The trans community has a non-binary problem

I co-hosted the weekly live chat on @transmenolder today. Posting this after the super upsetting debate that came about today about non-binary identities. Some argued that non-binary people are not transgender. This is not true. “Transgender” is an umbrella term that includes non-binary identities. While not all NB (non-binary) people identify as trans, there are many that do. We do not identify with the gender we were assigned at birth. Just like trans men. Therefore we are trans.

It’s very important to distinguish between gender identity (trans and non-binary) and gender expression (transmasculine non-binary, femme trans guy, masc trans guy). Having feminine characteristics (clothes, mannerisms, gentleness, etc.) does not make you less of a man as a trans man. Having feminine characteristics and embracing them as a non-binary person does not make you less trans. In fact, if we all embraced that gentleness, that femininity, there’s be less toxic masculinity that unfortunately too many trans men embody. And don’t confuse intersex sexes (there are many) with non-binary people. Intersex is a sex. Non-binariness is a gender.

The community welcomes these debates in the interest of conversation and education, but please don’t erase NB people from a community we’ve worked so hard to be accepted by. Questions are welcome. Debate is welcome. As long as both are respectful and come from a place of wanting to learn. The trans community as a whole has a blindspot when it comes to NB identities. We need to address that. Together.

The debate was also super upsetting in the context of JK Rowling’s transphobic attack, the one year anniversary of the Pulse nightclub shooting and the news from America today that transgender people will no longer be protected against discrimination while accessing healthcare. This effectively means that trans people can be denied medical treatment. This has been happening already with two people we know about who, upon being discovered to be trans, were refused medical care by paramedics and died. These all out attacks from cis people and governments makes the in-fighting within the trans community even more sad.

I’m tired. But I will continue to stand up for myself and my non-binary siblings. And all this while the focus is being taken away from Black Lives Matter.

#amwriting again

Today’s been a good day. I was asked by Aryan Kaganof yesterday to write a personal piece on JK Rowling’s recent transphobic tweets for an online magazine. I didn’t think I had much to add to the conversation. Turns out I did. I have written a piece I’m very proud of. I will share when it’s published.

What has also made me proud is the fact that someone as established as Aryan would value my writing. He has before. But that was years ago. Years ago that I thought I had something worth saying. Years ago that I believed in my ability to write. The diary, Plan B and Gabriel have changed all of that. Writing a daily diary on Facebook and Instagram and the associated blog posts for the past 76 days has made me more sure of my voice. More sure that I have something to say. More sure I can write. Not so much more sure but rather re-membering these things. Things that my depression takes away from me.

And knowing these things means so much to me. Because I’m a writer. I always have been. It’s my childhood dream. And now, more than ever, I know that my memoir will come together cobbled from the pieces of blog posts I’ve been writing for 20 years. I know that my other books will come to fruition too.

And this knowledge has made me proud. Proud of the person I’ve been for getting me to this place I am now. And I’m so proud of how hard I’ve worked to get here. How I’ve warriored through against the odds. Thank you, Germaine. I love you.

Germaine & Gabriel

I’ve been feeling sad since last night. It’s completely non-verbal and has no thoughts attached to it. Ok, that’s not true. In therapy on Friday we were speaking about what gender I see Germaine as. I replied to her question and said that I see little Germaine as female because she was violated as female because I was presumed female. She said, you, Gabriel, were violated. Not just Germaine. Well that hurt like a sonofabitch. It was also the use of the word “violated” – a much less manicured term than “abuse” that I always use.

I’ve been really good at compartmentalising my traumas by third-personing myself. Now the name change allows me to do that even more. Gabriel is safer, because Gabriel is safe. Gabriel has never been hurt. Gabriel trusts. Gabriel loves. Gabriel is happy. Because Gabriel is innocent of the horrors of this world. Who wouldn’t want to be Gabriel and not Germaine?

But I am both Gabriel and Germaine. And I always will be (which is why Germaine will be my second name when I legally change it). I need the strength of Gabriel to add to the immeasurable strength of Germaine to work through my traumas so that I can reclaim my past happiness, feel my current happiness and ensure future happiness.