No-one is born a man. Much like everyone else, I was born a baby, grew into a child, and became an adult. We all go through a process of becoming, girl to woman, boy to man, formed by time and different experiences. Some of us just have a few extra steps.
It’s September 2014. I’ve just moved into university halls, due to start first year of an undergraduate degree. I’m the first one there. My parents have given me a card before they leave me to unpack. Congratulations, it says. I have a letter for them too, though it’s not one they expect. I refuse to start this new chapter as anyone other than myself. A few hours letter my phone rings. Answering, I hear my father’s voice. “So, we’ve read your letter.” A pause that lasts too long. My heart stops, threatening to never restart, “You’ll always be our daughter.” Ah. It’s something I foresaw, but it hurts me deeply. I cry in silence as I move clothes from one place to another. Later that evening we’re all gathered in the kitchen. “I’m so excited to have a flat of all girls” says my flat rep cheerily. I’d thought a unisex name might help my friends when I’d first come out to them about a year before, but this moment makes me realise that it was now going to present some challenges when meeting new people. A unisex name with a female-looking face? Of course this would lead to the onslaught of “she’s” I was about to experience. Woops. I clear my throat, willing my voice not to shake, “Sorry to burst your bubble…”
The next day, hungover, I’m sitting in the campus doctor’s office. I open my mouth to speak and can hear nothing but the timbre of the soprano I had been as a teenager in an all-female choir. “I’d like to be referred to a gender clinic, um, please. If that’s okay.” Apparently, it is okay because she signs the forms I had printed off that morning (in case she had no idea what to do, GP’s aren’t always trained on this). “So, you’re female to male?” She asks this kindly, but I’m frightened. I’ve never had to admit this to someone so official.
The following year is spent waiting for an appointment to ask for hormone replacement therapy, insisting on correct pronouns, getting admin to please change my title from Miss to Mr, being grilled by people who seem vaguely angry or even threatened by my vocal existence, waiting some more, debating which toilet to use, saying thank you to people who seem to want a medal for being nice to me, saying fuck you to people who seem to want a medal for being cruel to me, waiting, and of course, waiting. Just before second year begins, I change my name from the unisex one I had been using to one that came to me in a dream. Arthur. It feels good. It feels right. I like how it sounds when I say it to myself in the mirror. I like it even more when I hear it from other people. This name makes it easier for some people to remember what pronouns to use, which is also a nice feeling. For others it makes no difference.
It’s a few years later, summer. I am at the passport office, desperately trying to get fast track renewal. I’m due to go on holiday very soon and, really, it’s my own fault for leaving it so long, although I had tried to renew it via post but there had been some issue. Probably to do with deed polls. I’m stressed and on the phone to my father. He is generally more accepting now, though still gets my name wrong. He asks what I’ll do if I can’t get it renewed. I joke that I’ll probably have a little cry. He laughs, “Well, you can’t do that if you want to be a man.” Hmm, I’ll try to remember that. I hang up swiftly.
It’s February 2019. I’m in the hospital. After years in limbo (I’m told by the clinic that I’ve had one of the longest waiting times of anyone currently under their care. I’m not sure why
they tell me this), I’m finally having a lifesaving operation that will render chest binding obsolete. I spend much of the day’s waiting crying on and off while my friend photoshops a picture of me in my hospital gown laying on the shore. We call it ‘Poseidon Reclining’ and feel very clever. The distraction is welcome but I’m still thinking about all the men I know who don’t have access to this kind of treatment. Some have medical conditions that prevent it, some live in countries that have nothing like the NHS (I’m looking at you, America). As they’re putting me under, I cry some more, though this time from gratitude. They ask me what’s wrong and I all I manage before I’m asleep is a very feeble “thank you.” It still doesn’t seem like enough. The surgeon tells me that I was “feisty” when I woke up in the recovery room. I find this deeply embarrassing until she tells me that it’s quite a common occurrence for young men. I feel less feeble.
I’m in and out of consciousness as I’m moved back to my room. I have friends waiting there for me. The next time I’m awake the news is on. The words “priest scandal” scroll across the screen. I’m very agitated, clearly upset, but the most I can get out is to tell them to turn it off. Another big secret that will need dealing with. My friends ascribe my moodiness to the drugs wearing off. That same evening my best friend comes to visit. He’s holding my hand and telling me how proud he is of me and the strength it has taken to live my life so openly. I feel like a filthy liar. Urgh, crying? Again?? It’s now or never. I share the secret of childhood sexual abuse at the hands of a babysitter. The wound in my chest is more than just physical and I have never felt more helpless and pathetic. He kisses my hand and my forehead and proves, for not the first time nor the last, that the love of our brotherhood is just as lifesaving as any surgery.
A month later, still wearing the post-surgical compression binder, I’m sitting in a therapy room full of other men, most of them older and much taller than myself. Some have a masculine presence that seems innate and I envy them bitterly. Although I want desperately to be here, I would like very much for the ground to open and swallow me whole. The majority of my time is spent looking at the floor, willing this to happen. It does not. Over the next few months, I grow to care very much about these men. I even learned to care about myself. It didn’t matter to them that I was trans, but that part of me was never silenced either. There were many things that made us all different, but we had far more in common.
Much of my life has been spent in shame. Shame over my sexuality, shame over my transgender body and the things I must do in order to not be in psychological pain because of it, and shame over having been abused and assaulted at varies times in my life. How on earth was I meant to be a man when I carried so much fear and felt so vulnerable? What kind of man would I be, if such a thing were possible? What man could ever love me, and would I ever love myself?
The truth is that I have never felt more like a man than when I have shared these secret pains with other men, when I have allowed myself to see the strength it takes in being vulnerable with them, and with myself. Never have I felt myself becoming more and more like the man I want to be when I have been moved by other men’s willingness to be open and honest about their experiences and feelings, fears as well as joys. It had been a true privilege to be privy to these kinds of emotions and to be accepted and seen by other men.
So, this International Men’s Day, I will not only be celebrating the man I’ve always been and my own personal odyssey, but I will also celebrate the man that I am still becoming, and I will honour the men who have helped me along the way.
By Arthur Fewings