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Monday, 31 August 2015

The road not taken

Have you ever made a decision, or shied away from one, that you have regretted the rest of your life?

Thirty years ago I was given the perfect opportunity to discover the person I wanted to be. Unfortunately it came at exactly the wrong time. Through a combination of cowardice and self-hatred, I rejected it at the time, and what I lost has haunted me more and more over the years.

In December ‘83, my first serious head-over-heels in-love relationship ended horribly when my girlfriend finally decided that she couldn’t live with someone who wanted to cross-dress and moved out while I was away abroad on a business trip. I rather went to pieces. To cap it all, my landlady decided this was her opportunity to ask me to leave and gave me notice to be gone by the New Year. All in all, it was a pretty miserable Christmas.

I moved into a flat that might best be described as a half-way house for trans-people. It was accepting, private, and, I thought, the perfect place to sort myself out. I could be who I wanted and no-one would judge me. I overlooked the fact that I was my own worst judge. I was a freak and a failure. The thought of dressing would bring back the memory of those devastating last months of our relationship when despite all our promises, everything went rapidly downhill. And so I chickened out. I threw or locked away my femme clothes. For the next five years that I remained there I stayed resolutely in male mode, while trying to quash the fantasies in my head. I even entered into a rebound relationship, largely platonic, with one of the T-girls there, a confident, striking redhead (I used to help her dye it every month). I helped out with the domestic chores: shopping, cooking, cleaning. When someone commented once that I would make someone a nice housewife, I brushed it off with a glib reply, but secretly I realised I so wanted that.

During that time, there were frequent visitors and parties. I particularly remember one young TV in her late teens or twenties who borrowed my room to change and then sat shyly in a print dress and blonde wig though the evening. I was desperately torn between wanting to put my arm around her and to be her.

Then, as things do, that period came to an end. Relationships started to get a bit strained and it was time to move on. This time it was largely my decision; I had already met L and we had an offer of somewhere else to move into.

For a long time after, when I thought back on that place, I thought about it as a refuge, a place to hide and put myself back together. In recent years, as I start to worry about the future, and what it is I really want when I will no longer be able to distract myself with work, I have started to regret it more and more as a missed opportunity to find out who I really wanted to be.

Sunday, 30 August 2015

Covering your tracks or: how I learned to stop worrying and love Google Blogger.

Well OK, maybe love isn't quite the word for Blogger and Google+. They can still be irritating and contrary at times.

Before I came out online and started blogging as Susie I used to be super cautious about hiding my internet history. I would select anonymous browsing and use privacy and proxy sites like SearchPage and DuckDuckGo for trans and CD related searches, and be careful to delete my browser history afterwards.

Since I started blogging as Susie I have become a lot less paranoid (complete anonymity is a little self-defeating in a blog site, after all.)  If you're hosting your blog with Google it seems a little self-defeating to try and mask your presence from them. You just need to learn to sup with a long spoon. 
I still log out and clean up after each session, but that's more to do with good housekeeping now than worry that anyone might find out where I've been. It's also a good thing to do for other reasons,  and I'd recommend that  you read Eli Pariser'sThe Filter Bubble: What The Internet Is Hiding From You.

Mind you, before I discovered the blogs and people I'm currently following as Susie it was probably wise to be careful, since searches for terms like crossdressing could often bring back a lot of stuff you really wouldn't want on your PC.  It's a weird world out there.

I was searching for something  but for a long time I didn't really know what I was looking for. Support, someone I could talk to, fellow travelers, even friends. I think I've found them now.

I also found that once I'd given Susie a name and an online identity, most of the sites I used to visit no longer seemed relevant. There's only so many Tumblr sites you can see before they all begin to look the same (and might as well be, given the amount of re-posting), and even the handful of stories on FictionMania that were functionally literate seemed to tread the same tired old stereotyped fantasies. Not that I have entirely put childish things behind me: As I wrote a while back, in Outed again, there's still a part of wanting to be Susie that seems to pander to those same stereotype gender roles (and I suspect might be behind L's reluctance to meet her), which still troubles me.
Perhaps I should give her time. She's barely two months old after all.

I hate it when this happens

I had another chance to be Susie for a few hours yesterday.
I was hoping to paint my nails, and then I caught a nail and it tore off  while I was out shopping.
It rather took the shine off the idea.
I wouldn't mind so much if was on my fretting hand.

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Boy Meets Girl - BBC transgender romcom

Just a quick heads up for a new BBC series, Boy Meets Girl, which starts next week (Thursday Sept 3rd).

Described as a transgender sitcom, it actually stars a  transgender actress, Rebecca Root, in the lead role.

"And about time", writes Paris Lees in this Guardian article.

You can also read interviews with Root about the series and transgender roles in film and television  in the Guardian and in the Radio Times.

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Outed again.

I may have just inadvertently outed myself in a comment to  Lynn on her post at about a recent episode of Radio 4’s Late Night Woman's Hour titled Reclaiming the Nerdiverse: the wilder side of fanfic.  This was a fascinating, and sometime racy discussion of how female writers and fans are happily redefining and reinventing gender roles, for themselves and of established sf characters. So racy, in fact, that the BBC has flagged a parental warning on this episode's podcast.

Time to come clean.

           “My name is Susie and I am a science fiction fan.”

There, I’ve said it.  If that doesn’t bring a horde of local villagers rushing to storm Sometime Towers with burning pitchforks, then nothing will.

I’ve been in fandom far longer than I’ve been Susie, over 25 years now, although the germ of both those twin obsessions goes back much further, probably to when I was around 9 or 10, which seems to be a particularly formative time.

And it’s probably not a coincidence. Science fiction has a long history, going back to at least the 50s, of exploring sex and gender alternatives. Maybe it even offered some hope that things could change. If God didn’t answer my prayers that I could wake and be a girl then maybe science one day could. Bron, in Samuel Delany’s Triton, could change sex in an afternoon. The inhabitants of Winter in Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness could be either male or female. More confusingly and thrillingly, characters in Theodore Surgeon’s Venus Plus X and John Varley’s The Barbie Murders elected to a sexless androgyny, neither male nor female, and somehow both.

As I wrote in my comment, sf fandom is probably one of the most LGBT friendly communities I know of. Had I actually come out as Susie (as a number of my friends there have come out as gay or transgender during that period) I don’t think anyone would have turned a hair, or been anything other than accepting and supporting. That acceptance of who you were or wanted to be among friends was and remains a large part of its appeal. There are a surprising number of trans fans and writers for such a small community, who feel no need to hide or apologise for who they are.

But what also struck me when I started blogging as Susie was that suddenly found myself in a very familiar place. Over the years, I gradually settled comfortably into fanzine fandom as my preferred area, and the mixture of the anecdotal, the humorous and the confessional that I discovered in writing and responding to fanzines I found all over again in a number of TG blogs. It was like coming home to a different place.

The Beeb followed that Woman’s Hour post discussed above with another program on gender and identity in the most recent episode of their Futureproofing series (first broadcast last Wednesday and available on iPlayer here:  Futureproofing: Identity.

Presenters Timandra Harkness and Leo Johnson explored the idea that in the digital age, things like gender, sexuality and identity will become increasingly a matter of choice rather than something imposed on us by social and biological constraints. It’s already happening (this blog community being a prime example). There are now apparently some 50 different gender choices in Facebook.
But, as Prof. Kwame Anthony Appiah of NY University argues towards the end of the program, one of the other things we do when we choose our own identity is also to choose a set of constraints. In choosing to be X, we chose the particular constraints and obligations that identity will operate under, different, perhaps, from the ones we were handed by the accident of birth and upbringing. 

In fact, I wonder how much it isn’t the other way around. Did I choose to be Susie, or did I invent Susie because I wanted to be subject to those constraints (clothes, appearance, fantasies) implied by her identity, rather than those of maleness? How much is this a free choice rather than a rejection, flight or escape? I don’t know. 

And it troubles me in another way. I like to think of myself as a feminist, or at least a supporter and fellow traveler. And yet being Susie, and cross-dressing, is often about embracing the same stereotypes that feminists have been fighting against since the sixties. I wonder if there will ever come a point where I feel comfortable as Susie even when I’m not dressed in overtly female clothes? I think that may be a long way to go, but it might be something worth aiming for.

Sunday, 16 August 2015

A good day

Yesterday was a good day. In fact it's a been a good week all told.
L was away for the day and warned in advance what time she would be back (she was late - she's always late).
I did an early shop and trawl of the local charity shops in man mode. I was rootling around in a box of odds and sods and found a white box. When I looked inside there was an ash blonde bob wig inside. The box was marked at £3.45 (!) so there was no way it wasn't coming home with me.
And Friday I left work a bit earlier than normal which gave me an hour to trawl the shops before they closed. I was hoping to find a pair a flats, but nothing approaching my size (instead I found a pair of black flats, size 8, in Sainsbury of all places). But browsing the racks in Helen Douglas  house I found a white peplum dress marked at a fiver. No way was that not coming home either.
I don't have a problem buying female clothes as a male. I realised a long time ago that most assistants really don't care or pay much attention, and attempted excuses that you're buying for someone else (who just happens to be your size) are likely to be pretty transparent. A sale is a sale. If there is private gossip in the local charity shops that I'm the guy who sometimes buys women's clothes, then I've not heard it, and frankly I no longer care.
The weekend before that I ventured into town - again looking for some more comfortable flats - and instead found a stunning red peplum dress. (Are you beginning to detect a pattern here?) It's a bit short (mid thigh) and racy and not something you'd go to the shops in, but who says we have to practical and sensible all the time. It's also rather low in the back. I really ought to get a backless bra or one of those multiway things, as I have no natural assets up top. I must have a look on amazon.

I've noticed I go through cyclic clothing obsessions, often based on something I've noticed other women wearing that has struck me as particularly stylish or attractive. A while ago it was cowl neck sweaters and sweater dresses (I would still love to find one in soft white wool), then it was shrugs. I don't know where the peplum thing started, but it crystallised with the girl on the bus on the way in to work. I usually sit behind her, and noticed after a couple of week that she had a set of around seven or eight very stylish  jackets and tops that she would cycle through. One of those was a white zip front peplum jacket (she has another in orange and another in a nice floral design) that I would be tempted to mug her for if it wasn't at least a size too small and she didn't look so good in it.

So anyway, home again, home again, with whole day to myself, a couple of new outfits and a new wig to try out. Can a day get better?
Weirdly though, while I spent most of the day catching up on Susie's blogs (I have my first ever comment. Yay! Thank you Lynne) I settled for a rather more restrained black top and leggings with a pair of low(ish) heels.

Even having to change back, scrub my face off and tidy everything away by mid-evening when I expected L to return, to have her turn up over an hour later, didn't manage to kill my mood.

Saturday, 15 August 2015

Transition Decision

No, not me. That really would put the cap on this relationship. At this late stage I have too much invested in my male side, and there’s too wide a gulf between the fantasy of being Susie and the reality of what it would cost and mean to be her all the time. Although as retirement looms closer, I am concerned that with all that free time, I will want to be her more often that I can, and that will start to cause problems.

I’m talking about the blog. So far I’ve been using it to talking about the problems (and lets face it, the satisfaction and thrill) of wanting to be Susie whenever I have the opportunity. I have wondered if I should actually hand this over to Susie and let this be her blog. (She is currently sitting at the keyboard typing about herself in the third person. That’s weird, and does raise the question of how far Susie is a separate personality from me or just a mask I put on to allow a largely repressed side of me - more colourful and clothes-conscious, more daring, younger - find an expression.

Back in the jug agane

How do you explain to someone what the problem is when they have made it clear to you that the very subject that lies at the heart of your mood swings?  Alluded to occasionally - often with a put down comment that make you want to retreat further back in your shell – but never openly discussed.
The thing I can’t get my head around is that L has been there, come out the other side, and now lives as the person she wants to be. Far from understanding, accepting or tolerating my need to dress, she finds constant opportunities to belittle it as something kinky and ‘pervy’.

 “There are also transsexuals who dislike transvestites as well as homosexuals. Intolerance can be found in strange quarters.” 
Harry Benjamin. The Transsexual Phenomenon.

 Saddening, but absolutely true. As cross dressers, we are sometimes seen as the pond-life end of the scale not only by mundane women and men, but also by some transwomen who, having struggled to arrive on the far shore, can be more militant in their intolerance and dislike of ‘mere’ TVs than born-that-way women.

Sometimes we can be our own worst enemies.

This definitely seems to be the situation I find myself in. L knows about my need to dress – has known all along in fact, since we first met but has always rebuffed and deflected any attempt to discuss it openly. She certainly doesn’t want to be involved in or confronted with it, or meet Susie.

I should be grateful I suppose that at least I’m spared the problem of coming out to her, and as long as I’m reasonably discreet, I don’t have to find hidden corners of the house to hide Susie’s clothes in secret.  Which is starting to be a problem as I tend to shop as a displacement activity when I'm denied the opportunity to dress, and she probably now has many clothes as my male self (and far more shoes) and running out of places to put them.

Drop a dress size through stress

Not that I recommend it.
I weighed myself for the first time in ages last night and discovered I had lost 2½  kg and am now back down to 61 kg and a 28½  inch waist, measurements I’ve not seen since 30 years ago.
 I’m not sure whether I should be pleased or alarmed. Susie is thrilled that this means she can just squeeze back into a size 10 (as long as she doesn’t breathe out), but for my bloke side, this puts me, at 6ft 1, firmly into the underweight category. I should be worried, but the problem of trying to be two different people, each with a different set of body perceptions and expectations, means that I experience a certain amount of body dysmorphia from both sides. Too tall and angular for Susie, too underweight and scrawny for my male side.

It might due to the fact that it’s summer, and I’m eating less and opting for salad meals instead of bread, rice and pasta. But I do know that my eating habits have been all over the place in the last few weeks and some of that is down to mood swings and depression – and a lot of that is to due with the comedown on not being able to spend any time as Susie since that glorious three days in July when she finally came of her shell.

How not to stretch your shoes

I found a nice pair of size 8 shoes on sale at half-price in Sainsburys a while back. They are a bit on the tight side, so I was looking for a way to stretch them a bit, and came across the suggestion to part fill a couple of plastic bags with water, tie each securely and pop one into each toe and then leave the shoes in the freezer. The idea is that water expands as it freezes and so would stretch the shoes to make them more comfortable. (Don’t try this, or leave them in overnight, if your other half might have awkward questions about why there is an oversized pair of heels in the freezer.) 
Also make very, very sure that the bags are properly sealed and don’t leak. (Leave them for 10 minutes on a couple of sheets of kitchen paper.) Hindsight is a wonderful thing. Luckily it was hot and sunny that day (yes, we did actually have one day like that) and I managed to dry out a pair of very cold and soggy black suede heels on the patio before L returned that evening.

Sunday, 9 August 2015

You can fool some of the software some of the time..

As an experiment, I’ve been playing with the online demo pages of a couple of face recognition software sites,  and They claim to be able not just to recognize a face in a picture, but to estimate age and gender as well as things like expressions. With a bunch of pictures uploaded to Tumblr, how can you resist?

Since I’m not the world’s best makeup artist, I’ve run a lot of my pictures through various digital makeover programs, like Portrait Professional (a seriously high end, but surprisingly cheap bit of software intended for professional portrait photographers) and some more fun makeover ones like ArcSoft’s Portrait + and Pefecta 365, for a bit (OK, quite a lot) of judicious skin smoothing, eye-brightening and teeth whitening. 

To make it fairer, I cropped and resized each file to around 400 pixels before uploading both  before and after running it through a digital makeover to see if it made any difference to the results.

 set 1:beforedigital makeover
            A              B                 C                      D                      E                      F                    G

set 2:after digital makeover/smoothing with Portait+, Perfecta 365, or Portrait Pro

Face recognition software results (gender M male, F female, age)
(before makeover)
(after makeover)
(before makeover)
(after makeover)
F, 29
F, 28
F, 36
F, 46
F, 36
F, 34
F, 31

The results are interesting, if salutory in a couple of instance.  
Pleasingly most of the images fooled both programs, although Face++ has the edge on 'reading' me on a couple of occasions. They also suggest that I look better/more convincing as a redhead or brunette than a blonde. (This might be quite a good styling tool if you are searching for a look that best suits you.) And I seem to pass better when I look happy.

Both programs peg me as a lot younger than I really am, sometime by twenty years or more. This is an effect noticed by PennyWife in her blog   Unfair perhaps, but then most women look a lot younger than their actual age.
Except in a couple of cases, skin smoothing  and wrinkle/blemish removal with digital makeover programs doesn't seem to make a huge difference to the results (apart from picture A) although it does seem to shave a few more years. I suspect the before and after makeover images here are probably too small to see the visible effect. 

Trans and the Uncanny Valley

“Whether it’s the skin, the voice, or the way it moves, we can tell the [robot] is attempting but failing to pass for human and that gives us the heebie jeebies”. Thus comments researcher Masahiro Mori on the uncanny valley that forms when something attempts to pass for something it isn’t but doesn’t quite get it right. The discrepancy between what we expect to see and the reality gives rise to a feeling of creepiness and sometimes revulsion. We are OK, and often amused, when the mimicry is an obvious pastiche, such as a toy, but become unnerved at a point when the mimicry becomes too realistic. Beyond that, when the mimicry is so perfect that we can no longer make a distinction, we relax.

The uncanny valley.

Mori, a professor of engineering, proposed the uncanny valley as a thought experiment for robot design, and how we would interact with them. (The recent Channel 4 series Humans exemplifies this perfectly.)
But it has also been used in psychology in a paper by Frank E Pollick of the Department of Psychology at Glasgow to explain (seriously) why we are sometimes unnerved by clowns (Capgras Syndrome).
And it could also have a bearing on passing and trans-people. People are unnerved, frightened, and can sometimes react abusively or violently if their perception of a transperson falls in this uncanny valley (which may be different for different people). And as the uncanny valley shows, you only need to be a little off in appearance, voice, gait or behavior. Drag queens, comedian Eddie Izzard and artist Grayson Perry (in his Claire persona) are on the left side of the scale. Theirs is a performance rather than an attempt to pass. Caitlyn Jenner, along with many successful transwomen, appears to have passed though the valley and out the other side. But the valley is a real trap for the weekend crossdresser, especially if they like to go out occasionally.
If on these occasions you find yourself in the valley, this suggests two possible strategies, depending how good you look and how comfortable you feel, that can push you to one side or the other. The first is the Eddie Izzard/ Grayson Perry approach, “Yes, bloke in a dress. So what? Deal with it.” The other, as many suggest, is to practice a confident attitude and walk in sensible clothes and comfortable shoes on the basis that if you don’t look nervous and self-conscious, and you don’t obviously frighten the horses, then most people probably won’t give you a second glance.

And the tune is called ‘A-sitting on the fence’

I wonder if that’s what I’m doing after starting this blog.
It’s been nearly a month since that first post, during which I’ve hung back and dithered about what I’m doing and whether I know what I want to do. Coming out, even pseudonymously, and online, feels like a big step after I’ve kept the Susie part of me wrapped up and hidden for so long. It’ll be thirty years since I last revealed my trans side to someone I loved and trusted, and that went badly wrong. And thirty years on, it seems in danger of happening all over again.
Having created Susie’s blog and a Tumblr to go with it, and uploaded a first post, I’ve held back from uploading anything else, apart from tinkering with the site layout and design. (I’m new to blogging, and a bit of a geek, so playing with the layout and widgets proved distracting for a few days.) I don’t know what I quite expected to happen. That I’d get flooded with ‘welcome’ comments, or worse that someone would stumble across my Tumblr site and somehow recognize me though the mask of makeup and Photoshop airbrushing. (I have been able to fool myself for a long time that these are merely ‘laughter lines.’) Highly unlikely, I know. Sometimes – to my intense pleasure – I barely recognize myself.
 I’ve finally come out as Susie because, I think, I’ve finally found some people online who seem to share what I’m experiencing, and some who have successfully reached a balance and made it part of their lives, and even (like Hannah) find a joy and humor in it. To me, that still seems a long way off, but I would love to reach that point before it’s too late.