When a chef makes a thoughtful but risky decision to combine two ingredients that he hasn’t used together before for a curry, and the outcome is delicious and complementary, he goes home with a satisfied glow in his heart, and probably his tummy too. He took a calculated risk and it paid off, but it could have gone horribly wrong.
This week I counselled a new member of my transgender support charity, 79-years old, recently bereaved Charlotte (not her real name), who had been hiding her true gender identity all her life. In her twilight years, and with a host of physical health issues, she wanted to meet a like-minded person for friendship. None of her old friends were willing to accept her new gender presentation and she was desperately sad and lonely.
I took a calculated guess and asked an old trans friend of mine, Anne (not her real name) if she would like to meet me and Charlotte for coffee. Anne too is 79 and hid her gender identity during her 50-year marriage, only transitioning full time when her wife died.
Anne and Charlotte appeared to have the same interests, thoughts, gender issues, health issues, and the same philosophical outlook about their respective diminishing health and time left on this planet. We met at a café in a local superstore and the first hour of conversation between the two was a bit stilted; not so much a conversation as two separate dialogues as each basically blurted the story of their lives, the pain of hiding their respective identities for so long, the grief of losing their lifelong partners, their deteriorating health, their own looming deaths.
Anne talked of her experience of conversion therapy. At the age of six when Anne was a boy, she started to wear skirts and dresses, which in 1940’s was totally unacceptable, and so her parents placed her in an ice-cold bath wearing her favourite dress, in front of a mirror; then they gave her a concoction of food and drink that made her throw up, the idea being to link the feeling of vomiting with wearing “girls” clothes. It didn’t work, Anne continued to secretly wear skirts at home as a boy, and in the local streets in the depths of night, and persisted even after being beaten up one evening by four youths, which left her face scarred for life.
I watched and listened as the conversation between these two lovely artefacts of the 20th century became more friendly and interactive, as they realised how much they had in common, and I could feel the palpable, tentative strands of a friendship beginning to form. Two and a half hours later, they wrote their respective mobile phone numbers on napkins and exchanged them, like newly-weds exchanging vows, and invited each other back to their respective homes at a later date.
I nipped to the loo, on the excuse that the coffee was playing havoc with my prostate, which it most certainly was, but I also took the opportunity to wipe a tear from my eye.
I felt like the chef, I had made a risky decision based on my knowledge, experience, and perception, to introduce two people who had never met, in the hope they would form a bond. It worked and it gave me a warm glow in my heart to watch these aging trans women smiling at each other and exchanging nice thoughts and words, and it gave me a warm glow in my soul.
My tummy was quite happy too, after three cappuccinos and two toasted tea cakes!
That was a nice culmination of a week of trans support work that began with my attendance as a transgender member of the local Crown Prosecution Service Hate Crime Scrutiny Panel. It was quite daunting sharing a Zoom call with retired magistrates, serving police officers, CPS lawyers, and giving my advice on how a selection of real-life transphobic hate crimes could have been better handled by the Criminal Justice System.
I cannot divulge the details of the hate crimes we scrutinised because I have signed the Official Secrets Act and would be breaking the law if I did. But each was a harrowing tale of how an individual’s life was turned to misery and fear at the mercy of bigoted, hateful and uneducated idiots, who decided to bully and harass people for no other reason than they didn’t like the colour of their skin, the clothes they were wearing, or that they were holding hands in the street as same-sex couples.
The police and the CPS work hand in hand to tackle hate crimes, using such legal tools as the Public Order Act 1986 and the Criminal Justices Act 2003, and especially Section 146, which applies a sentencing uplift as an extra punishment for hate crimes.
What struck me most about the Scrutiny Panel, was the absolute dedication and passion of the lawyers and police attending, and their determination to apply the letter of the law and, with the resources available to them, to make our streets and homes safer for people who suffer from the hate of others.
In between the Hate Crime Scrutiny Panel and the coffee and tea cakes with friends, I spent a day at a hospital with a film crew, making an NHS training video that introduces new recruits to the variety of different job roles they could undertake, apart from the obvious nursing and medical careers.
I acted the role of an NHS receptionist who had to look after an old lady with dementia and sight loss, and who had misplaced her hospital appointment letter. I was Jade, and the lady was Mrs Smallman (real fake names), and with two cameras and bright lights unflatteringly picking out every line and crease in my trans woman’s face, a microphone hidden between the folds of my blouse, and feeling very secretarial in a tight skirt and heels, I had to show the patience, compassion and empathy that every member of the NHS is taught and indoctrinated, and I had to make Mrs Smallman feel valued, respected and comfortable with her hospital experience.
The film director instructed me on where to stand and walk, so that the first camera would not inadvertently point at the second camera, and we took about five takes because I kept forgetting my lines and tripping over my words. But with the sound of “Action” and “Cut” and “Take 5”, reverberating around my head, I left the hospital at the end of the day in the knowledge that I was the first transgender person to assist the hospital and contribute to this type of NHS training video, and it gave me another warm feeling in my tummy.
I finished the week as a trans woman on a mission, not quite an impossible one, but certainly challenging my skills, specifically in buying underwear for another trans woman, not just any trans woman, but a sex offender serving many years for her crimes. She is Linda (not her real name) and is one of my group members in the local prison, for which I am the transgender support group facilitator.
The reason why I volunteer to facilitate this group, who are unquestionably societies’ most undesirable people, is that one day, not all but most of them will be released back into society, and if I can help them with their mental health issues, specifically relating to gender identity, I hope they will be more balanced and happier people, and will not re-offend.
Ministry of Justice prison rules mean that inmates can only order new clothes from outside the prison from a pre-selected and vetted list, and for someone born into a male body, the option to buy a size 44B bra, and size 46 M&S knickers in pink or pale blue, is not available. So I was asked by the prison staff to buy these items and send them to Linda. A visit to M&S, and then Primark, and finally M&Co proved fruitless, the maximum bra size I could find was 38. So I resorted to eBay, and within nanoseconds had ordered the right items and sent them off to a very happy trans lady.
That was my week from Thursday 13th May to Thursday 20th May 2021 inclusive.
All the above happened.
All is true.
None is fiction.
Working as a volunteer for a transgender support charity is one of the most challenging but rewarding things I have done in my life, which is saying something from a person who spent 25 years as an officer in the British Army, with its own unique challenges, but I would recommend to any trans person who has spare time on their hands, to become a volunteer.
If there is no transgender charity in your area, volunteer for another charity. If you are a trans woman, I can assure you that you will be accepted wholeheartedly by the charity and their other volunteers. They have no bigoted perceptions about whether “gender identity” is a real or fake concept and will not regard you as a “safe-guarding” threat, as we hear many of the transphobic gender critical people claim on social media. You will be welcomed and treated with the same respect, dignity, and appreciation that any volunteer receives for dedicating their spare time to looking after the vulnerable and disadvantaged people of our society.
And finally, I have to prepare for next week’s work, 3 days of actor role-playing in another two hospitals. In one scenario I will have to play a transgender person who is having a heart attack, and the student paramedics who are diagnosing me and giving me first aid, must treat me with dignity and respect as they remove female clothes from what appears to be a male body…..
…….but that’s another story.
Authored by Co-Editor Julie – Twitter:@julie_trans